Space and the law: Breaking down legal questions after Houston astronaut accused of hacking from ISS

International Space Station
International Space Station

HOUSTON – Summer Worden alleges her ex-spouse, astronaut Anne McClain, hacked Worden's bank account while she was in space aboard the International Space Station. 

No one has been charged with any crimes in this situation.

McClain, through her attorney, issued this statement. NASA also issued a statement

For further discussion on the matter, we turned to KPRC 2 legal analyst Brian Wice, for more on how law is handled when space comes into play. Here are our questions and his answers.

Brian Wice
Brian Wice

Do you have more questions for our legal analyst on this story? Leave them for us in the comments. 

How is crime in space handled in the law – who would handle the case, for instance -- local law enforcement or federal or international authorities?

Any time alleged criminal wrongdoing is conceivably both a violation of both state and federal statutes, a decision has to be made as to what sovereign -- federal or state -- will take the lead.  While it is too early to tell who will assume management and control of any such investigation and, if warranted, any prosecution, any possible violations I see fall within the heartland of state criminal law and so would be investigated and prosecuted by local law enforcement. While any alleged wrongdoing may have occurred literally out of this world, the Texas Penal Code says that any possible crimes can be tried in any county in Texas where any element of the alleged crime took place.

What role could NASA play in this case? 

Because any possible wrongdoing occurred on NASA's watch so to speak, it would be called on to do whatever was necessary to assist in the investigation and, if warranted, any subsequent prosecution.  

How would evidence collection be handled, for instance?  

I would think this process would be no different than in any other investigation.

Is this the first alleged crime committed in space?  Do you know of others?

In my 40 years as a criminal defense lawyer and 25 years as legal analyst, this is the first time I can recall a fact situation arising from outer space. 

What is the potential crime here and the potential punishment? 

The two potential crimes that stand out are making a terroristic threat to a family member, which is a Class A misdemeanor (one year in jail and a $5000 fine) and breach of computer security (which can be anywhere from a Class C misdemeanor ($500 fine only, no jail time) to a first-degree felony (5 to 99 years or life in prison and a $10,000 fine) depending on the amount of loss suffered by the victim.

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