Monday 16 September 2019

Astronaut accused of committing fraud in space

The International Space Station. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
The International Space Station. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ben Riley-Smith

The divorce case has details that are all too familiar - partners at loggerheads, a child caught in the middle, claims of financial malpractice. But there's a twist.

The person accused of wrongdoing was in space.

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In what is believed to be a first, Nasa is investigating if one of its astronauts committed a crime in orbit.The person in question, Anne McClain, was on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS) when the incident took place.

Taking advantage of the ISS's internet connection, McClain accessed the bank account of her partner while they were separating.

The partner, a former Air Force intelligence officer called Summer Worden, has accused McClain of identity theft and improperly accessing her finances, according to the account. McClain, in turn, has denied any wrongdoing, arguing that she was simply overseeing the couple's intertwined arrangements.

Nasa is investigating.

The case is unprecedented, with Nasa officials saying that they are unaware of any previous crimes being committed on the space station.

Mark Sundahl, director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, went a step further, saying that he was not aware of any crime being committed anywhere in space before.

"Just because it's in space doesn't mean it's not subject to law," Mr Sundahl said,adding: "The more we go out there and spend time out there, all the things we do here are going to happen in space."

The couple were married in 2014. Ms Worden has a son who had been born a year before she met Ms McClain.

McClain wanted to adopt the child; Ms Worden resisted.

Rusty Hardin, McClain's lawyer, said "she strenuously denies that she did anything improper" regarding accessing the bank account while in space and "is totally cooperating" with the investigation.

McClain, a decorated pilot, was a West Point graduate who flew more than 800 combat hours in Operation Iraqi Freedom before joining Nasa in 2013. She was due to be part of Nasa's first all-female spacewalk during her time on the ISS, but did not participate.

The case has thrown a spotlight on the unclear world of space law and what happens if a crime is committed in orbit.

There are rules for what laws govern on the ISS, which has astronauts from America, Canada, Japan, Russia as well as several European nations.

National law applies to each person and their possessions.

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