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India Artemis Accords signing
Taranjit Sandhu (second from right), India’s ambassador to the US, signs the Artemis Accords June 21 as NASA Administrator Bill Nelson looks on. Also participating are Nancy Jackson, deputy assistant secretary of state for India, and Krunal Joshi, ISRO space counsellor. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

India joins the Artemis Accords

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Collaboration in space between India and the United States has some six decades of history. It is often mentioned as collaboration between two powers who share values like vibrant democracies and open society. The Indian space program was born in 1963 with the launch of Nike-Apache sounding rockets from the India’s first spaceport, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. In the first few years this relationship was thriving, with joint collaborations between NASA and ISRO like the Satellite Instrumental Television Experiment (SITE). Under this program, satellites beamed educational content to television sets for more than 2,000 remote Indian villages.

With India becoming a part of this US-led global space regime/governance model, some questions are being raised about India’s space autonomy.

But India’s nuclear policies have been the main dampener. India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 and then a series of nuclear tests in 1998. Subsequently, this relationship has reinvented itself with the success of the US–India civil nuclear deal in 2005. During last week’s visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US, the space relationship has made more progress. India has now joined the US-led Artemis program. Also, NASA may be sending an Indian astronaut to the Intentional Space Station (ISS) in 2024. The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Earth science mission is progressing as planned, with ISRO scheduled to launch this satellite in early 2024.

The US was very keen on having India sign the Artemis Accords. On June 21, the Indian ambassador to the US, Taranjit Sandhu, signed on the dotted line. India becomes the 27th state to join this accord. These countries belong with different parts of the world, from Latin America to North America, from Africa to East Asia and the Middle East. India becomes the first South Asian state to join this group.

With this, India has acknowledged NASA’s rules in regards to the best practices to be adopted to civilian exploration of space and conduct of activities on the Moon and beyond. This is an interesting shift in India’s space view. From a scientific and technological point of view, the Artemis program involves going to Moon and beyond and there could be various opportunities for India to contribute and learn. India’s space industry is evolving very rapidly and is expected to benefit if India becomes a part of this US-led space architecture.

With India becoming a part of this US-led global space regime/governance model, some questions are being raised about India’s space autonomy. At the policy level, has India capitulated its strategy independence in matters related to space governance and security? It appears unlikely that India would surrender. In December 2022, India abstained from voting on a United Nations General Assembly resolution to ban destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, which is a US brainchild. India is an ASAT power and is balancing its strategic needs against a commitment against space weaponization. It is likely to follow an independent path, while contributing on various platforms at the UN level.

The Artemis Accords is also about political commitment to principles described within it. It claims to be based on the obligations contained in Outer Space Treaty (OST) and other established structures, like the Liability Convention and Registration Convention. The Accords, announced in October 2020, has 13 sections and many of them match with global views on the use of space for peaceful purposes and transparency.

The Artemis Accords signatories include a mix of both established spacefaring nations as well as emerging ones, including some, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with major space ambitions. India is a part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) grouping, which has two major space players, China and Russia. All this indicates that the Artemis Accords signatories includes counties with differing levels of maturity as well as levels of dependence not only on the US, but also on China and Russia.

The elephant in the room is section ten, which is about space resources.

India is currently preparing for its first Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission 2025. Indian astronauts have already trained in Russia. The Gaganyaan crew module is designed to carry three astronauts to orbit and splash down after reentry. Section five of the Artemis Accords speaks of interoperability, raising questions of how it might apply to Gaganyaan.

Section eight speaks of release of scientific data, but clearly mentions that private sector operations are excluded from data sharing. Going by the present trend, mostly the private players from the US are likely to contribute much towards future planetary missions. Hence, it would be naive to expect much in regards to data accessibility.

The elephant in the room is section ten, which is about space resources. Currently, states and private players do not possess the required level of technical expertise to get significant amounts of rock samples from objects in space back to Earth, but the practice of sample return to Earth on smaller scales is already happening. We have no globally accepted polices in this regard. Today, there is a need to have a debate for forming globally accepted structures with respect to management of space resources. It is important to consider section ten and section eleven together, which speaks of creation of “safety zones” on the Moon and other bodies to avoid harmful interference by other agencies operating on those planets. Can a state or a private agency just annex regions and preserve them for future settlement? Such measures should not be implemented unilaterally. It needs a wider debate and acceptance.

Space resource mining is predicted to emerge as a thorny issue in the future. There are differing predictions about the prospects for space resources. According to some, a big cargo aircraft load of helium-3 mined from the Moon’s surface could cater for the global energy needs for around ten years, provided there are fusion reactors that can use it. Recent experiments suggest that space-based solar power could become feasible, creating another source of demand for space resources.

Interestingly, some countries have established laws that give companies rights to resources they extract from the Moon, asteroids, or other bodies. There is a need to ponder future geopolitical consequences when making any national laws in this regard. The Artemis Accords may be undermining the concept of Common Heritage to Mankind (CHM), or global commons, in space.

This is an opportune time to start negotiating for an UN treaty mechanism on space mining. India, now being an insider, needs to engage the US in this regard. There are some dichotomies about the positions of Artemis signatory states. Australia is a signatory to the Moon Agreement, which views Moon and its resources as CHM.

It will also be interesting to watch the progress in regards to NASA-ISRO undertaking a mission to take an Indian to ISS in 2024.

Broadly, Artemis is about science, commercialization, and norms-making for Moon and beyond. It creates an impression that if you are with us (the US), then you get access to the resources of the Moon and Mars quickly.

It is known that NASA astronaut candidates undergo a training and evaluation period lasting approximately 18 to 24 months. Even space tourists are required to spend around six months for training. So the issue is that, how by 2024 NASA can train an Indian astronaut and send him/her to ISS? Can NASA pick up from Indian astronauts, who are already trained in Russia and fast-track the training for their mission? If that is the case, then what would happen to India’s Gaganyaan program?

The following are the likely missions to the ISS during 2023 and 2024. It may be noted that already trained astronauts have been identified for all these missions.

  • Boeing (Starliner) Crew Flight Test, was to happen around July 2023. Now stands indefinitely delayed as announced by Boeing on first of June. There would be two astronauts onboard, which includes a very experienced Indian-origin astronaut, Sunita Williams.
  • SpaceX’s Crew-7 mission (August 2023) and Crew-8 mission (2024) could also be carrying Russian cosmonauts. SpaceX is expected to fly a crewed mission to the ISS for Axiom Space and in addition the privately funded Polaris Dawn citizen astronaut flight to orbit by end of 2023.
  • There would Soyuz MS-24 (September 2023), Soyuz MS-25 (March 2024) and Soyuz MS-26 (September 2024) missions happening. There is a possibility of Boeing Starliner-1 mission happening in 2024, but all would depend on when the Crew Flight Test mission gets spaceborne.

Broadly, Artemis is about science, commercialization, and norms-making for Moon and beyond. It creates an impression that if you are with us (the US), then you get access to the resources of the Moon and Mars quickly. India should not get overwhelmed by the enormity of this project. India has its own Moon and Mars program, which it should pursue aggressively and at the same time get maximum benefits, in terms of science, technology, and commercial aspects, from the Artemis program. In regards to the proposed ISS mission, the 2024 deadline looks very ambitious. However, both NASA and ISRO are professional agencies and it is expected that they would not cut any corners to meet that deadline.

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