Laws have long been portable things. Human beings settled frontiers with tools and muscle—and too often with weapons, seizing lands that belong to others. One other thing the settlers also brought along were their legal systems, rules of the road to govern their behavior in the new communities they built. That was true when all our exploring was terrestrial, and it remained true when we ventured into space. As long ago as 1967—just six years after the first human spaceflight—the U.S. and other signatory nations established the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies—better known simply as the “Outer Space Treaty.” The pact bound partner nations to use space only for peaceful purposes, to forswear claims of sovereignty over any region beyond Earth, to lend aid to astronauts in distress, and more.
Now that old law has a new follow-up. On Oct. 13, NASA announced the completion of what it has called the Artemis Accords, an agreement among eight partner nations to cooperate and collaborate in future explorations of the moon and Mars, especially via participation in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon before the end of 2024. The seven other signatories to the pact include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and Italy. But the accords are, in a sense, open source, with other countries invited to join if they both agree with the pact’s provisions and contribute to the joint enterprise in some way.
“Both the foreign ministries and the space agencies of the various nations were involved in developing the accords,” says Mike Gold, NASA’s acting administrator for the office of international and interagency relations. “It’s important that we take not just our astronauts to the moon, but our multilateral agreements.”
“Our interest,” adds NASA deputy administrator Jim Morhard, “is to bring everyone we can in under the tent.”
That’s a lot easier to do now than it was back in the Apollo era, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the only powerful space players around and, as mortal enemies, were not exactly inclined to collaborate. In the years since, Russia, the U.S. and more than a dozen other partner nations have come together to build and operate the International Space Station (ISS), establishing a template for cooperation in space.
What’s more, this time around the hardware lends itself to partnerships. The key elements of the Apollo program—the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo orbiter, and the lunar module—were all one-time-use machines, good for a single mission and no more. NASA now envisions building a sort of mini space station, known as Gateway, in a permanent lunar orbit that can be used as an embarkation point for trips to and from the lunar surface. Like the Artemis Accords themselves, the Gateway would be open source, with docking ports that would allow other nations to add their own modules or bring their own crews in their own spacecraft.
“We have compared the Gateway to an iPhone, which anyone can write software for,” says Gold. “The point of Gateway is interoperability, to make it open to other nations.”
But the Accords go well beyond Gateway. The text of the 18-page agreement establishes 10 different sets of rules that partner nations agree to obey. Among them are ensuring that all lunar operations remain peaceful; that countries are transparent about the work they are doing on the moon; that they release and share scientific data; and that any resources discovered—such as water ice at the south lunar pole—can be extracted freely and sustainably, with no interference or claim-jumping by one nation over another’s digs. The partners also agree to respect lunar heritage sites, such as the locations of the six Apollo landings.
“The accords are a political commitment to live by the agreed-upon rules,” says Gold. “The goals are peace and prosperity.”
But not everyone can be part of the new enterprise. The Wolf Amendment, passed by Congress in 2011, forbids NASA from collaborating with China in any way, for fear of theft of U.S. technology. Russia, meantime, which is very much an equal partner in the ISS program, has not—so far at least—signed on to the Artemis Accords. On Oct. 12, during the first day of the annual International Astronautical Congress—being held virtually this year—Dimtry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, complained in a statement that the accords are “too U.S.-centric” and that only if the program were run more like the ISS—with the U.S. and Russia maintaining dual control over the station, with twin Mission Controls in Houston and Moscow—would Roscosmos “also consider its participation.”
Rogozin’s counterpart, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine pushed back—gently—telling The Washington Post that “the Gateway uses the exact same agreement…that the International Space Station uses” and that NASA has “shared with Roscosmos what we would like to do with the Gateway in terms of collaborating with them and seeing what their interest is, and we just haven’t heard back.”
It’s that kind of open-handed, soft-power negotiating that historically has made peace possible among nations on our home world. The Artemis Accords are an attempt to ensure the same on other ones.