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EXTRATERRESTRIAL ACTIVITY

NASA is investigating what may be the first space crime

NASA astronaut Anne McClain during a spacewalk in this social media photo from the International Space Station.
Ground control to NASA astronaut Anne McClain.
By Ephrat Livni
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Much is unknown about space. But one thing is sure: The laws of Earth still apply to astronauts who leave the planet’s bounds.

For astronaut Anne McClain, this notion became a stark reality when she became what appears to be the first person ever to be investigated for a crime alleged to have taken place in space.

McClain is a decorated NASA astronaut, and the allegations against her are unrelated to her work. She is accused, however, by her ex-wife Summer Worden, of identity theft. The alleged crime, according to Worden, took place while McClain was on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.

Worden filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Her family lodged a similar claim with NASA’s Inspector General’s Office, and now investigators are trying to get to the bottom of this novel situation, the New York Times reports.

McClain’s accusers say that she improperly accessed Worden’s bank accounts while aboard the International Space Station, using NASA technology to meddle with her ex’s finances on Earth. The astronaut acknowledges accessing the account but denies any wrongdoing.

She was simply managing the couple’s finances as she had always done to ensure there were sufficient funds to pay bills and care for the boy she had been raising with Worden, she argues. No funds were moved from the account or used in any way. McClain was interviewed under oath by NASA Inspector General investigators this month and is reportedly cooperating.

Nonetheless, it appears that McClain’s terrestrial troubles may have impacted her prospects in space. In March, after NASA contacted her about Worden’s complaints, the astronaut learned that she would no longer be part of the space agency’s planned all-female spacewalk. NASA announced that it had to replace McClain because it only had one suit that would fit both women slated for the walk, McClain and astronaut Christina Koch. A NASA spokesperson denies that the decision to replace McClain with astronaut Nick Hague was related to or influenced by the allegations.

In any case, the space agency is getting a taste of what the future holds. This may be the first allegation of a crime beyond Earth’s bounds, but it certainly won’t be the last. And while there is no doubt that the long arm of the law reaches beyond this planet, prosecuting cases that arise in space will likely be especially complicated.

The technology that McClain used to access the bank account on Earth belongs to NASA, and the agency should be wary of opening up its networks to attorneys looking for evidence in this or any other matter, Mark Sundahl, director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, told the New York Times. Still, he said, “Just because it’s in space doesn’t mean it’s not subject to law.”

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