As a New Space Age Dawns, the Artemis Accords Should Take Center Stage
Space norms developed now have the potential to build a prevailing international framework that could last decades, if not centuries.
The liftoff of Artemis 1 last November launched a new era in space, as the United States prepares to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit and back to the Moon for the first time in half a century. The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule finally made their debut after $23 billion and eleven years of development.
Back on Earth, another element that will define this new era in human exploration of the cosmos has also begun taking shape. The Artemis Accords are a set of shared, non-binding principles that aim to govern “responsible, peaceful, and sustainable” exploration of space, taking the form of bilateral agreements between the United States and twenty-two signatory countries. This new international space club saw nine nations sign on last year.
As we finally enter the Artemis Era, the Accords must play a more prominent role in U.S. space geopolitics and public diplomacy.
Artemis and its Predecessors
The Artemis Accords, launched by NASA in mid-2020, aim to enhance international cooperation around the return to the Moon and establish the prevailing norms and guardrails for space exploration and governance in the lunar system and beyond. The principles center around peaceful, cooperative, responsible, and transparent use of space, as well as pledges to address space debris, share data, and preserve historic places or objects like landing sites or defunct spacecraft. Many of these are common-sense and broadly acceptable principles. Another section permits the establishment of “safety zones,” which require notification and coordination procedures around the sites of activity in space to avoid conflict.
The Accords build on decades-old multilateral agreements called the “five United Nations treaties on outer space” and their celestial protocols. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the foundational document for international space law, establishing outer space as the “province of all mankind.” On the Moon and “other celestial bodies,” states commit to not claiming territory and to peaceful activity. States also agree to refrain from placing nuclear weapons in space.
Subsequent treaties expanded on these issues. The Registration Convention, for example, requires states to inform the UN of objects launched into space and their orbits. The Liability Convention states that anything launched within the territory of a state is the liability of that state, no matter who is doing the launching. For instance, if your company’s smallsat hitches a ride on a Falcon 9 rocket and later ends up colliding with a French communications satellite, the United States is the responsible party. The Moon Agreement expands the “province of all mankind” principle to the Moon and its resources, requiring “equitable sharing by all State Parties.” Unsurprisingly, the United States, China, and Russia have not agreed to restrict commercial exploration and use of the Moon; Saudi Arabia’s recent withdrawal is more proof this view is fading.
This is also why there is the more geopolitically contentious line concerning “Space Resources” in the Artemis Accords, which states that “the signatories affirm that the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation.” A chief OST principle established that no nation can lay claim to a celestial body in space—in other words, no space conquistadors. Taking resources from that body is another question. Could a nation take Moon rocks as souvenirs, or mine substantial amounts of helium-3? The United States had already attempted to answer this question: the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act formally legalized U.S. space mining. The Artemis Accords are an effort to establish de facto international agreement that space resource extraction is consistent with the OST’s provisions on sovereign claims.
The signatories of Artemis are geographically and culturally diverse. All have alliances or close relationships with the United States, and include NATO allies and important partners in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, and Latin America. Two African nations, Nigeria and Rwanda, signed at the end of last year.
Great Power Competition Goes to Space
China and Russia have rejected the premise of the Accords. Russia has slammed them as “too U.S.-centric,” and China state media claimed the Accords are redundant, given the existence of the OST, and are a U.S. effort to stunt Chinese space ambitions.
Instead, China is forging ahead with the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), a base on the Moon’s south pole, by the middle of the next decade. Unveiled in 2021, the ILRS will be a phased program with “reconnaissance” and “construction” stages through 2035 and crewed landings beginning in 2036, though China could achieve a crewed landing by 2030. China has opened the program to others, likely intending the ILRS as an alternative to the Artemis Program. This would be in line with its efforts to disrupt the liberal, U.S.-led global order and to develop its own.
China and Russia could silently abide by the Accords without signing or violating them, or create a set of alternative principles around ILRS that attracts signatories and emerges to compete with Artemis, similar to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which excludes the United States). There’s been no sign of this yet, but the UAE (an Artemis signatory) inked a Moon exploration partnership memorandum of understanding with China in September of last year. An Artemis head start doesn’t necessarily mean the Accords will prevail.
So as U.S.-China tensions reach the cosmos, defining a framework for space exploration in the twenty-first century will be crucial. China claims that its activities in space are for peaceful purposes, but U.S. intelligence has warned about China’s planned militarization and weaponization of space. Among our most vulnerable assets are satellites. China famously tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in 2007 and has continued to build an ASAT weapons program that could threaten our critical satellites.
It is also not difficult to imagine a militarized ILRS base. A report last August predicted China would overtake the United States “as the dominant global space power economically, diplomatically and militarily by 2045, if not earlier,” and that America “may likely lose space superiority to China within the next decade.”
The Accords are also vital for economic reasons. There are potentially trillions of dollars of resources on celestial bodies, such as helium-3, iron, nickel, and gold, and nations that develop the capacity for space mining will want a slice of that pie. The Accords thread the needle between permitting resource extraction—by any nation—and reiterating that celestial bodies are not subject to sovereignty. The lack of internationally accepted rules of the road for space, or a situation with competing principles, will inhibit peaceful exploration of space, increase the likelihood that the domain becomes militarized, and reduce opportunities for commercial growth: if the playing field is unstable or unclear, companies won’t invest—and space is risky enough already.
Growing the Club: Prioritize Germany and India
Germany and France were not part of the initial signatory list, skeptical of the text and the coalition. France was apparently under the impression that the OST banned space mining. Many nations in Europe understandably want to maintain leverage and their own capacity to shape global policy independent of the United States. Europe has diverged from Washington on the regulation of Big Tech with the General Data Protection Regulation, for example. France and Germany also want to boost the role of the European Space Agency.
But it is in the broader European interest to join U.S.-led initiatives in a multipolar world, and the best bet to guarantee its own interests are represented in space. Infighting over defense spending had strained NATO to the point of “brain death.” But once a major threat to European security emerged from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the alliance quickly came back together with a robust response. Members of the alliance share overarching values, and European-American disputes are relative by nature. There shouldn’t need to be a cataclysmic event with China in space to galvanize U.S. allies.
France ultimately signed last June after being convinced by U.S. officials that the Accords were the beginning of a discussion on space resources, not a finite end. Getting Germany onboard would send another important signal that key U.S. allies are united on Accords principles, and should be a priority.
India’s accession remains elusive. India-U.S. ties are warming, and the nation has no qualms about joining new U.S.-led groups and dialogues such as the Quad and the I2U2 Group. But the country’s thinking likely remains tied to its broader geopolitical positioning. India’s historical relationship with the Soviet Union and now Russia complicates Artemis talks. Much like India’s cautious approach to Ukraine, India may choose to play it safe for now with a wait-and-see approach on competing frameworks and groupings. India may simply not sign any set of multilateral principles in space that it sees favoring one international bloc over another.
India has a robust space program with big ambitions, not to mention immense geopolitical significance for U.S. national security in the Indo-Pacific, and it is likely the biggest outstanding prize for the Accords. If India continues to seem reluctant, then the Accords should allow for some sort of partnership or secondary signatory category, at least at first. It is critical that the U.S. builds on a broad array of signatories beyond its traditional allies, and such an option might attract additional signatories.