NASA, the U.S. civil space agency, announced the Artemis Accords in October 2020. It is an agreement for lunar exploration and beyond, with participation of both international partners and commercial players. The program envisages the landing of the first woman on the Moon by 2024. The Artemis Accords are guided by key principles of peaceful exploration, transparency, interoperability, emergency assistance, registration of objects, release of scientific data, preserving outer space heritage, preventing harmful interference, and safe disposal of space debris. These are also principles enshrined in the existing international space law including the foundational legal instrument, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967, and the accords thus can reinforce the existing international space regime.
On May 31, New Zealand became the 11th country to sign the Artemis Accords. A few days earlier, on May 24, Republic of Korea signed the accords. These two countries join Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and the United States. The U.S. lead on this issue is important, but many important space powers, including Russia, China, and India, are yet to sign on to the accords. With more countries and industries pursuing lunar missions, there is a need for basic rules governing these activities that will minimize damage and evolve a set of good practices that would contribute to responsible behavior during lunar operations. Nevertheless, developing new governance measures to guide such activities is not going to be an easy matter.
Welcoming New Zealand to the accords, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson claimed that the accords are “simple, universal principles [that] will enable the next generation of international partnerships for the exploration of the Moon and beyond.” Announcing New Zealand’s signing of the accords, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta also pointed to principles such as “transparency, interoperability, release of scientific data, sustainable use of resources, safe disposal of debris, and prevention of harmful interference in other’s activities.” She also acknowledged another important aspect: Although international laws exist in these areas, there was a need for “additional rules or standards to ensure the conservation and long-term sustainability” of space.
While the Artemis Accords have been developed primarily by the U.S. for pushing lunar exploration, its utility in the broader area of global governance is also important. It would be useful to have spacefaring powers agree upon and comply with a common set of principles, guidelines, and best practices, which could be greatly beneficial for safe and sustainable use of space and maintain space as common heritage for all humankind. This is only a political commitment for ensuring better compliance with the commitments that state parties have already made by being parties to the OST and its four subsidiary agreements.
One of the serious problems facing outer space activities is the absence of full compliance by states to their commitments under the existing legal framework. A fuller compliance to treaty commitments by state parties can immediately change the dynamics in terms of openness and transparency, which will help reduce suspicion between different space powers. The need for more confidence building measures that would reassure states of their policies and activities in outer space cannot be emphasized enough. Given that global politics has grown much more competitive, the major spacefaring powers (many of whom are also the major global powers) need to make significant investments in measures that would enhance trust and confidence in each other. Therefore, space powers need to contemplate the global governance challenges they face and how they might address these. The Artemis Accords might provide one option, though not the only one. Moreover, this is not to suggest that legal measures, including formal treaties, should not be pursued. Unfortunately, additional legally binding treaties may not be possible in the immediate future, though they may be an option for the longer term.
The reason is that breaking the current deadlock in multilateral negotiations and developing appropriate multilateral mechanisms for outer space is not going to be easy. As noted, the Artemis Accords are not the only initiative that has been proposed. There are also some proposals made by China and Russia to build an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and the two countries are currently seeking countries and international organizations to join their endeavor. This was reportedly announced on the sidelines of the 58th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in April. China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russia’s Roscosmos have invited partners to join them at all stages of this proposal including planning, design, research, development, implementation, and operations. China and Russia entered into this partnership in March this year. It remains to be seen what kind of support Russia and China will get, but it is quite evident that even with regard to lunar activities and governance proposals, the global community is going to be divided. Unfortunately, it is reasonable to expect that countries will support the Artemis Accords or the ILRS based on their political leanings far more than the merits of each proposal.
With the ILRS proposal by China and Russia, the choice for countries like India could become somewhat complicated. Russia might want India to join, but on the other hand, growing animosity between India and China is not only likely to prevent any meaningful collaboration between the two countries in outer space but also make India wary of the Chinese and Russian proposal.