Space might be the final frontier but it’s not anything like the lawless, old American Western frontier. The International Space Station might be 254 miles above any country but earthly laws still apply aboard this cosmic human outpost. So even though no one can hear you scream up there, everyone sure can sue you.
Space lawyer Michael Listner joined Rae Paoletta and Steve Ward on the sixth episode of I Need My Space, Inverse’s podcast about all things extraterrestrial, to discuss how much of a legal minefield the ISS really is. Instead of establishing some kind of orbital colonial rule, the crew aboard is subject to the criminal laws of specific nations depending on what section of the ship they find themselves in. It’s like multiple embassies floating right over our heads.
“You’re dealing with a multination monster,” Listner says about the space station. “The way it’s set up is that the ISS has made modules that have been contributed by different countries. I’m in the [United States’] module, I’m in U.S. territory. If I cross over to the Russian module, I’m in Russian territory. It’s basically like going into an embassy.”
Construction of the ISS began on November 1998 and still receives routine additions and upgrades to this day. Think of it as a massive Lego model. Each section of the station was constructed using the blocks of a specific country, either the U.S., Japan, Canada, Russia, or member states of the European Space Agency. Each area of the ISS is subject to the laws of the country that made it.
This legal framework was set up by the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement, often referred to as “the IGA,” which was signed in January of 1998.
“If I’m in the Russian module and I end up punching someone in the nose, under the IGA, it would be subject to the criminal laws and courts of the Russian Federation,” said Listner.
So if you ever do make it up to the ISS, think twice before picking a fight. You might just end up in a jail cell across the world.