What started as a statement of good faith reasoning behind the strategy of the Artemis Accords and the policies within became a debate over tactics and potential dangers of rushing to signing without thinking through unintended consequences.
The first presenters, from NASA and the US State Department, definitely had the US interest and Point of View in mind. Naturally, we want to believe humanity’s return to the moon will bring advancement in science and prosperity to all nations involved, even all humankind. This excitement might be blinding stakeholder nations from asking the tough questions.
We got an overview of the program, to set the stage for the principles of the accord and why they were designed as such. We are by now all familiar with the goal to return to the moon by 2024.
The politics are possibly the most challenging part of these missions, not the technology. Bipartisan support, within the US, has been really transformational in NASA’s ability to advance towards Artemis.
The twin sister of Apollo, Artemis is symbolic of the diversity that this new era of space ushers in. The diversity is important not only symbolically, but also as an enrichment of the skills, points of view, and innovation that come with diverse teams. Unlike Apollo, there will also be a diversity of international partners in the Artemis mission.
Artemis will be American led, but there is a global coalition that is joining the US in the mission. This includes new, emerging space agencies. The UAE is a great example of a relatively new agency that has come so far in a short amount of time, including the Hope mission that will explore mars.
Commercial involvement is also new. That commercial capacity and innovation will be leveraged to bolster the Artemis mission.
Enter the Artemis Accords
In the Artemis accords, NASA is leaning towards a series of principles the agency (and the US, by proxy) wants international partners to adopt. According to NASA’s Acting Associate Administrator, Office of International and Interagency Relations, Mike Gold, the response has been very positive.
These accords apply to participation in the Artemis mission, not to space exploration at large. Most principles are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty (OST), but a number of principles go a step further. These are in the spirit of the treaty, but the language might be new. Such as “the release of scientific data” and “deconfliction of activities”. The Artemis accords go a bit more into details that were not fleshed out in the OST.
“We need to be more Star Trek and less Star Wars.” — Mike Gold
Because NASA is not an actor in International Law, it is clear that they are not looking for a legally binding agreement. This is the goal of the accords, to set us on this path––and not hold up the 2024 timeline. It’s a coordination mechanism more than a set of laws. There is a whole range of issues for which we don’t have clear legal precedents. We want to understand what the rules are before we get there.
This is the spirit: get people working together, to come together and come to a common understanding of the basic rules they want to operate under.
“It’s not a territorial claim, it’s not a keep-out zone… It’s learning to live and work together in a place we’ve never lived and worked together before.” — Gabriel Swiney
But doesn’t this require much more time and cooperation between parties, rather than an attitude of “you’re in, or you’re out?”
The image that the US constituents wanted to leave in our minds is one of international decision-makers coming together around the table for a common cause.
Some things are certain, in that we have the toolkit in the OST, and now, for the first time, we have a moment in front of us to enact those principles and values. The moment presents an opportunity to outline what these principles look like in practice. The OST could only go so far in theory, trying to predict the actions in the future. We have now arrived at that future.
There were some highly technical analyses of the Accords that followed. Some very serious legal repercussions can’t be ignored because the zeal of the moment entices us to rush past. The reasons for rejecting the Moon Treaty, for example, that the US was integral to developing through the traditional process of establishing binding international law, is a point of concern.
Professor Ram Jakhu of McGill University addressed some issues that need to be vetted before partners sign the accords. Leaving room for too much “good faith” without a concrete understanding of any unresolved issues can lead to future challenges. This could emerge as a US advantage, or as a situation where seemingly benign loopholes allow extraterrestrial territory to become disputed, defined, and exploited.
While the “Star Trek, not Star Wars” sentiment is seductive, the presentations offered a sobering reminder of the stakes.
A comparable partnership on the ISS has been governed under the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement and Code of Conduct for ISS Crew, which are consistent with international law, and also were developed over a much longer timeline than the rushing of the Artemis Accords.
The question is, why shouldn’t the cooperation of Artemis be governed by the same standards? This is an ongoing debate, and there will be more webinars from McGill University on the subject.