NASA plans to seek international partners for the Artemis lunar exploration program, making an agreement like the Artemis Accords critical. (credit: NASA)
President Trump has made quite a mark on US space policy by announcing the Artemis program to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon in 2024 and creating the Space Force. The recent developments continue the role America has always played in space: a leader and partner in peaceful, cooperative international efforts. This is the spirit that has led to 20 years of continuous human presence in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and that sent American astronauts to the Moon a half century ago, not to claim territory, but “in peace for all mankind.” President Trump’s initiatives build carefully and squarely atop a foundation of policy that stretches across decades of bipartisan leadership.
The Artemis program is designed to be an international partnership, like the ISS. As such, it will benefit from international agreements, and from a shared understanding of what is expected from all involved in going back to the Moon. When the President signed the Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources in April, senior administration officials hinted that it would form part of the framework for bilateral space exploration agreements to come. The Artemis Accords, announced in May, constitute more of that framework. The Accords are a set of principles for the exploration and use of outer space, and commit the United States and its partners to a safe, peaceful, and open approach to joint activity in space.
Under the Artemis Accord principles, signatories agree to:
- Conduct all activities for peaceful purposes;
- Publicly and transparently describe their policies and plans;
- Use open standards and strive for interoperability;
- Provide emergency assistance;
- Register space objects to help avoid harmful interference;
- Release scientific data publicly;
- Protect sites and artifacts of historic value;
- Extract and use space resources in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty;
- Provide public information about the location and nature of operations, and work to deconflict where necessary; and
- Mitigate orbital debris.
One would be hard-pressed to object to most of these principles; who could oppose helping an astronaut in danger? The principle relating to resources has received the most attention, but even that principle is in complete harmony with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and with decades of US policy, including the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. Indeed, the Accords can be thought of as operationalizing the Outer Space Treaty, filling in the ambiguities within that short document to support and ensure compliance.
NASA is reaching out not only to traditional partners like the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), but to new, emerging space agencies as well. While no public announcements about the Accords have been made since May, NASA and the State Department have publicly stated that negotiators have been working hard behind the scenes with their counterparts in several countries to finalize the language of these agreements, and many in the community expect major news within the next few months.
Work on Artemis spacecraft and other systems is proceeding rapidly. NASA and its international partners are preparing to transform the dream of a permanent, sustainable presence on the Moon into a reality. The Artemis Accords are designed to reinforce and implement the goals and objectives of the Outer Space Treaty to ensure that all Artemis-related activities are conducted in compliance with existing multilateral treaty obligations, while also extending common US practices such as the open and public sharing of scientific data. The experiences gained from leveraging the principles of the Artemis Accords for actual operations on the Moon will lay the groundwork for future multilateral discussions within forums such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, potentially leading to new multilateral treaties and norms of behavior.
NASA has often stated that the Artemis Accords are fundamentally international partnerships to support the Artemis program. The principles of the Accords are crafted to ensure that, as Artemis progresses, both the US and all of its international partners abide by the Outer Space Treaty, the Registration Convention, and globally beneficial norms of behavior such as the public release of scientific data. Although Artemis partner nations will be the first to sign the Artemis Accords, a review of the principles indicates that the Accords are likely to be very inclusive agreements. Any responsible spacefaring nation should be willing and able to abide by the principles of the Accords. NASA is charting a course to a peaceful, transparent, safe, and prosperous future not only for itself and its partners but for the entire world.