Social Issues in Space Exploration

Space Law:

Main Principles

The legal framework for space activities is based on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) and four subsequent United Nations treaties implementing its provisions.

With the latest trends in the space industry as the growing importance of private initiatives in the exploration of space, the main principles of the Space Law may be challenged as most of those principles were designed when space exploration was only the business of the states.

The main principles of the treaty are summarized below.

Space Law:

Crimes in Space

Space may be compared to the high seas as it belongs to everyone and to no one, and any country cannot lay claim to it. In legal terms it is called Res communis.


International law allows countries to assert jurisdiction outside their territory in several ways, including via the nationality principle, which covers crimes committed by a country’s citizens outside its borders, and the universality principle, which allows countries to prosecute anyone for serious crimes against international law, such as piracy.


As for the question of who prosecutes space crimes, the short answer is that a spacefaring criminal would generally be subject to the law of the country of which they are a citizen, or the country aboard whose registered spacecraft the crime was committed, because the treaty grants that country authority “over any personnel thereof”.


However, the term “personnel” is not defined, and this raises questions as to what the case might be for private citizens such as, for example, an Australian space tourist flying aboard a US-registered spacecraft. The visualization on the right highlights several issues related to space industries and space exploration which may cause legal debates in the nearest future

Space Law:

Crimes in Space

and Space-Related Crimes

In 2019 the NASA astronaut Anne McClain was accused of committing a crime in outer space. She was accused in accessing the bank accounts of her former spouse without her authorization. An investigation subsequently cleared the astronaut Anne McClain of wrongdoing. Her former spouse, Summer Worden, was charged with lying to federal investigators.

Nevertheless, that case became an unprecedented allegation of crime in space. Instances like that could become more usual with space becoming more accessible. This case raised some questions as whether records of Ms. McClain’s internet usage from space could be presented in court to help aid in Ms. Worden’s defense.

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