Say, for instance, a crime on the space station does affect another party—things get more complicated. “If Astronaut A from Country A stole a watch from Astronaut B from Country B, and it happened in a part of the ISS that belonged to Country C, then it’s a lot less clear,” Hanlon says. (The space station contains modules from NASA as well as the Russian, Japanese, and European space agencies.) The current space station agreement simply says that all affected countries will talk to each other and negotiate a solution. That seems reasonable with the space programs we currently have, where the small number of astronauts heading to the space station are highly vetted, and criminal accusations are infrequent enough that they can be considered on a case-by-case basis.
But once space tourism takes off, these guidelines are not going to hold up for long. The space station agreement, as you might guess, only applies to the International Space Station, and if private companies launch their own shuttles and bases, the process for determining jurisdiction is even murkier. Let’s consider the same watch-stealing example, but with citizens aboard a private space hotel. Civilian A from Country A accuses Civilian B from Country B of stealing her watch, in an incident that allegedly occurred in a pod built by Country C that’s part of a spacecraft licensed and launched by Country D. Technically, according to the Outer Space Treaty, nation-states claim responsibility for spacecraft they launch or sponsor, as well as any damage they may cause. But there’s no law that specifically governs human behavior in space. That means that technically Country D would be responsible for determining next steps here—but countries A and B might have a problem with that, and the whole thing could quickly devolve into a bureaucratic nightmare.