NASA said Friday it has begun negotiating a series of bilateral agreements with space agencies in other countries that want to join the Artemis Program. Essentially, partner nations would need to agree to 10 basic norms as part of their space activities, such as operating transparently and releasing scientific data.
“We don’t want to only carry astronauts to the Moon, we want to carry our values forward,” said Mike Gold, a NASA associate administrator who has led development of the Artemis Accords. “We want to use the excitement around Artemis to incentivize partners to adopt these principles that we believe will lead to a more peaceful, transparent, safe and secure future in space—not only for NASA and the international partners we’re working with, but the entire world.”
He and NASA’s deputy administrator, Jim Morhard, spoke with Ars in advance of Friday morning’s announcement. Both were careful to say that these accords are based on the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, as well as the United Nations’ Registration Convention.
“This is based on our values and our own behaviors, but it’s also grounded in the Outer Space Treaty,” Morhard said. “Hopefully you’ve seen it in our own actions in how we comport ourselves at NASA. We intend to continue acting the same way we have. Our hope is that we’ll have new international partners, and current ones that will adopt those same values if they haven’t already.”
NASA is continuing to refine the details of its Artemis Program, which entails the launch of humans to the Moon as early as 2024 and future lunar missions that could include international astronauts. NASA would also spearhead development of a small space station in lunar orbit, called the Gateway, which will include modules contributed by other countries.
Gold said that NASA, working with the US State Department, hopes to negotiate and reach a final agreement with one or more international partners by the end of this year. “We’re trying to create some teeth for the obligations to the Outer Space Treaty,” he said.
The Artemis Accords, which are outlined in the gallery below, generally reflect what NASA and its international partners have already agreed to in the framework that governs the International Space Station. However, they do introduce some new principles, such as the use of space resources, that are unique to exploration on other worlds. This particular accord states, “The ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development.”
After elements of these accords were leaked in early May, some perceived them as an effort by the United States to regulate the exploration of the Moon. The leader of Russia’s space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, reacted angrily on Twitter, comparing the effort to bypass the United Nations or NATO to American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, Gold and Morhard said that the agreements would be negotiated with international partners instead of being unilaterally instituted. Although NASA has not yet formally reached out to Russia about the Artemis Accords, Morhard said, “We certainly hope that Russia will be part of this. It’s not like we don’t want them.”
In some ways, the agreements appear to be an effort to differentiate a Western model of exploration from that of China—which is not transparent about much of its exploration plans and has a mixed record of sharing data from its research activities. There is also rising concern about debris from Chinese rocket launches, including the reentry Monday of large pieces from a Long March 5B booster that came down in Africa but could just as easily have landed in the United States.
Although China will be invited to join the Artemis Accords, NASA officials said it or any other country would have to respect the safety of people on Earth.
“The empty core stage of the Long March 5B, weighing nearly 20 tons, was in an uncontrolled free fall along a path that carried it over Los Angeles and other densely populated areas,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars on Friday morning. “I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords. It’s vital for the U.S. to lead and establish norms of behavior against such irresponsible activities. Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.”