NASA, which devotes a lot of time and effort to thinking about the future, is looking to the day when a barroom brawl breaks out in space.

And like a good government agency, it is proposing a regulation to cover the situation.

The rule approved last week by NASA administrator Robert A. Frosch, would give the commander of the space shuttle authority to "use any reasonable and necessary means, including physical force," to maintain order and discipline among those on board.

This police power would include the authority to arrest somebody in space, and charge him with a crime punishable by a $5,000 fine, a year in prison, or both.

"We never had a rule like that because we never needed a rule like that," was the reaction of Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, a veteran of two trips to the moon and one in Earth orbit. "I never felt the need for a written regulation or the need for brute force to get things done."

To hear NASA's lawyers tell it, times have changed. For one, the space shuttle will carry seven people, compared to three on Apollo and two on Gemini. As many as four of the seven will be civilians, not professional astronauts. Three could be foreigners, not familiar with NASA training procedure.

"We had to establish a chain of command with all those people on board at the same time," explains S. Neil Hosenball, NASA General Counsel. "Once we recognized the need to do that, we realized we had to have regulations concerning possible criminal behavior in space."

Hosenball said that he sees legal precedents for the new rule in two assault cases involving people in cramped quarters far out of touch with the rest of the world.One took place on an airliner flying from Puerto Rico to New York, and the other in a quonset hut housing civilian scientists in the Arctic.

The airliner case, in 1956, involved two Puerto Ricans on their way to new lives in New York. According to court records, the two men toasted each other with rum until their plane was an hour and a half out of San Juan out over the Atlantic. Then one accused the other of taking his rum and a fist fight ensued that drew most of the plane's passengers to the rear of the aircraft to watch it.

"At an altitude of 8,500 feet, the plane suddenly became tail-heavy," the court record states. "The nose rose so fast that the autopilot could no longer make corrections."

The pilot intervened and locked the defendant in the bathroom, but not before being bitten in the shoulder. At a court hearing in New York, the defendant was released because the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over an airliner in flight over the ocean.

The Arctic case involved two of 20 technicians doing research on Fletcher's Ice Island, which is the summer months meanders through the Arctic off the coast of Alaska.

Court records show that one technician went berserk and attacked three others before one of them killed him. The survivor was charged with manslaughter, but got off when an Alaskan Court of Appeals ruled that it had no jurisdiction over a crime committed on an island that spent 99 per cent of its time floating through the Arctic Ocean.

"We're most concerned with the possibility of the assault in space, perhaps due to incompatibility," Hosenball said. "The likelihood of that happening is minimal, but I think, going through the experience of the aircraft and the Arctic, we ought to be prudent and make sure the jurisdiction exists."

But suppose that a shuttle commander has to make an arrest in space -- what does he do with the offender? There will be no brig on the shuttle and presumably no irons.

Former chief astronaut Donald K. (Deke) Slayton has a suggestion: "The shuttle will have a head [bathroom] so you could lock somebody up in the head the way your mother used to do when you were bad."

Hosenball said the only objection so far to the new rule has come from the European Space Agency, which worried about European scientists under U.S. jurisdiction. Hosenball said he has not heard a peep from the U.S. astronaut corps since the new rule has been circulated for their comment.

"What do you expect? It's the age of litigation," said Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins. "You put in regulations like this to protect yourself from lawsuits."

Hosenball agrees: "When I first got here in 1967, the number of legal cases of any kind filed against NASA was zero. Right now, we have 120 active cases in our file."