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Artemis Accords signing
Peter Crabtree, head of the New Zealand Space Agency, and Charge d’Affaires Kevin Cover of the US Embassy in New Zealand pose following an Artemis Accords signing ceremony in May. New Zealand was 11th country to join the Accords. (credit: NASA)

The Artemis Accords after one year of international progress

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NASA’s Artemis program, which will send the first woman and the first person of color to the Moon, is being closely watched by the rest of the world. The program’s success or failure will answer important questions with strategic implications for US leadership here on Earth: can the United States still achieve great things? Can it still lead by developing international consensus? Can it maintain a long-term effort despite political changes? Can it be a more compelling partner for space exploration than China?

There are now 12 signatory nations, with NASA expecting more to join in the coming months, pointing to a solid future and growing influence for the Accords.

At the core of the Artemis program’s diplomacy is the set of agreements between the US and each of its partners in lunar exploration: the Artemis Accords. The Artemis Accords outline jointly agreed-to best practices for safe and sustainable exploration, with intent to reinforce and implement the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 by addressing operational concerns such as transparency, interoperability, emergency assistance, the release of scientific data, the use of space resources, and the management of orbital debris. Originally signed on October 13, 2020, by the US, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, the Accords represent the most significant development in space diplomacy since the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement was signed in 1998.

Any questions regarding the durability of the Artemis Accords were answered when the Biden Administration pressed forward with efforts to attract new signatories. Since President Biden took office, three more nations have joined the Accords: South Korea, New Zealand, and Brazil (Ukraine signed a week after the 2020 election, during the lame duck period). This brings the total to 12 signatory nations, with NASA expecting more to join in the coming months, pointing to a solid future and growing influence for the Accords.

The most recent signatory, Brazil, is the first Latin American nation to sign the Accords. Others in the region will likely follow Brazil’s lead, joining the Artemis program and signing the Accords. Geographic diversity will only further strengthen the Accords: in addition to more Latin American countries joining, NASA and the Department of State would do well to focus on bringing the first African nations into the Artemis Accords family.

Additionally, President Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Modi at the White House last month. The statement released by the White House after the meeting noted that the US “welcomes India’s consideration of potential cooperation in Artemis and the Artemis Accords”—a further indication that India may soon join the framework. The possibility that India would sign the Artemis Accords as part of a continued broad diplomatic initiative across two US administrations is further evidence that the Accords’ long-term prospects are good.

The Artemis program and the Artemis Accords have prompted a significant reaction from China and Russia, which have announced their own plans to collaborate on lunar exploration and have criticized the Artemis Accords as redundant. In recent years, China has begun to make a serious play for space leadership by putting its own astronauts in orbit, launching a space station, deploying a satellite with a robotic arm, and sending probes to both the Moon and to Mars. Russia can offer its tremendous expertise and experience but needs China’s economic engine to maintain a substantial role in space exploration.

The two countries are inviting other nations to collaborate in an International Lunar Research Station program that will potentially consist of a space station in lunar orbit, a base on the surface, and a set of rovers. Russia and China announced an initial roadmap for the program in June, with lunar site selection by 2025 and construction during 2026–2035.

In late September, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Russian space agency Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration would present a declaration regarding the program at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai in late October. In June, the two agencies said they were already in negotiations with the European Space Agency, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia to join the program, and broader outreach appears to be underway.

Chinese leaders have seen the Artemis Accords in part as a counterweight to their ambitions for leadership in space by creating a shared set of norms and principles that China may not support. Chinese state television and some Chinese aerospace experts have compared the Accords to the enclosure movement that privatized public lands in 18th-century Britain and have said that the US is using a “Cold War” mentality as it seeks to outcompete China and Russia in outer space. However, some members of the Chinese legal community have put forward a more nuanced view, noting that the Accords are more of an exercise in agenda-setting than law-writing. Even China’s state-sponsored space news outlet described the benefits of a cooperative space exploration framework like the Artemis Accords.

Even China’s state-sponsored space news outlet described the benefits of a cooperative space exploration framework like the Artemis Accords.

China has also stated that it views the Accords as redundant and therefore unnecessary. As examples, China has pointed to the Accords’ pledge to provide emergency assistance, which China agreed to do as a signatory of the 1967 Rescue Agreement, and Accords’ principles for responsible debris mitigation and spacecraft disposal, which China agreed to as a signatory of the Requirements on Space Debris Mitigation of 2015. Of course, the argument that the Accords are redundant because China has already agreed to their provisions is directly at odds with the argument that the Accords are unacceptably slanted in favor of the US.

The Russian agreement with China is a departure from the partnership between Russia and the US that has been the foundation for the International Space Station for two decades. Russia has stated that the Artemis Accords are too “US-centric” to sign at present. Russia also has expressed concern that the Accords’ support for property rights clashes with international law, despite a growing international consensus that the Artemis Accords simply represent common ground regarding the ability to extract and utilize resources in a sustainable fashion in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. Russia has called the Artemis Accords “space colonialism” and is not expected to sign the Accords in the near future.

China and Russia notwithstanding, the Artemis Accords continue to make progress. Indeed, the opportunity for neighboring countries to balance China’s ambitions by collaborating with the US and other partners is undoubtedly a selling point for the Accords, along with the Accords’ focus on transparency, fairness, and mutual aid. As the Biden Administration continues to put its stamp on US space policy, the Artemis Accords will be an important diplomatic tool and a valuable demonstration of continuity across administrations in the service of a long-term space exploration objective.

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