NASA appears to be making good progress in building international support for a plan to return humans to the Moon in the 2020s.
On Tuesday, during the virtual meeting of the International Astronautical Foundation, the space agency signed “accords” with seven other countries that will establish norms for cooperation among nations to explore the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the Solar System.
Signing the Artemis Accords alongside the United States were Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. Essentially, partner nations agreed to 10 basic norms as part of their space activities, such as operating transparently and releasing scientific data.
“I want it to be really clear that this is the beginning,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, during a teleconference with reporters. “There are many other nations that are not only interested in the Artemis Accords but anxious to sign them. But countries all around the world have to go through their own interagency processes to be able to sign on to the accords.”
NASA has done well to get so many countries on board so soon. NASA only first published its proposed language for these agreements in May. At the time, the agency’s associate administrator who led these negotiations, Mike Gold, told Ars that he hoped to have at least one signatory by the end of this year. It’s October, and he has found seven partners already.
Bridenstine said the accords are based on the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, and said the goal is to establish a framework by which the agreements can be enforced. That is, if nations want to participate in a NASA-led program of human exploration into deep space they have to agree to do things like mitigate orbital debris.
“If one of the participants chooses to disregard the guidance of the other participants, I guess ultimately they could be asked to leave the Artemis Program,” he said. “But I would hope that they would come to a better resolution than that.”
Russia and China?
NASA is still working out the details of which countries will participate, and how, in its plans to return humans to the Moon by as early as 2024. Some countries have already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support these initiatives. Japan has talked about delivering cargo to the Moon with an upgraded version of its new H3 rocket, and Italy may build pressure vessels for lunar surface habitats. In return, their astronauts may get seats on future lunar missions.
One country that has publicly resisted participation in the accords is Russia, a nation that NASA has worked with for nearly 50 years in space and upon whom the United States relied until recently to get its astronauts to the International Space Station.
During the virtual meeting on Monday, the head of Russia’s space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, complained that the Artemis Program is too “US-centric.” This mirrors his past criticism of the plan—in contrast to other members of the International Space Station partnership. “The most important thing here would be to base this program on the principles of international cooperation that we’ve all used” to fly the ISS,” Rogozin said.
This seems to be what the United States is trying to do, but it’s not clear whether Russia would be willing to participate under any circumstances. Bridenstine left the door open, saying he has a “real strong relationship” with Rogozin and that there is a pathway for Russia to participate either in the Lunar Gateway to be built in orbit around the Moon, or the landings themselves. Discussions are ongoing.
NASA has not had any direct negotiations with China, however, as it is prohibited from doing so by Congress and the Wolf Amendment.
“NASA as an agency will always follow the law and the law right now prohibits us from engaging China on bilateral activities,” Bridenstine said. “I will also say… that, look, if China’s behavior were to be modified in a way that Congress, Republicans, and Democrats come together and say look, ‘We want to engage China,’ NASA stands ready. But at this point it’s just not in the cards.”