The following is a guest post by David P. Fidler, adjunct senior fellow for cybersecurity and global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On May 30, the United States, in partnership with SpaceX, launched the first U.S. astronauts from American soil since 2011. This achievement underscores President Donald J. Trump’s commitment to transforming U.S. civil and military space activities, including rejuvenating human space exploration. This launch advances the U.S. goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis Program. The United States then plans to harness “what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap—sending astronauts to Mars.”
The United States does not seek to venture to the Moon and beyond alone. On May 15, NASA announced the Artemis Accords, conceived as a set of bilateral agreements with the space agencies of other countries that want to participate in the Artemis Program. These agreements will embody principles that NASA has identified as critical to governing the exploration and use of the Moon and, eventually, missions to Mars. As such, the Artemis Accords represent a seminal development in the governance of a new age of space activities.
The Governance Principles of the Artemis Accords
The bilateral agreements between NASA and other national space agencies will integrate principles found in existing space governance regimes, such as the Outer Space Treaty, that NASA believes will facilitate safe and transparent exploration, scientific research, and commercial activities in space, for the benefit of all humanity. To be specific, the Artemis Accords will:
- Ensure that missions serve peaceful purposes, as the Outer Space Treaty requires;
- Require transparency in plans and policies for space exploration;
- Strive for interoperability of space systems;
- Reaffirm obligations in the Rescue Convention to provide emergency assistance in space;
- Emphasize the need to register space objects and encourage partners to join the Registration Convention if they have not done so;
- Require release of scientific data;
- Protect heritage sites and artifacts on the Moon of historic significance;
- Reinforce that the Outer Space Treaty permits extraction and use of space resources;
- Prevent harmful interference with lunar operations by deconflicting activities through transparency and safety zones; and
- Commit the parties to respect UN-negotiated guidelines on space debris mitigation.
The Governance Strategy in the Artemis Accords
In the Artemis Accords, the United States is using existing governance regimes to advance space activities rather than pursue revision of the Outer Space Treaty or negotiate a new agreement. This approach contrasts with the Trump administration’s decisions in other areas to reject multilateral treaties, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, and weaken international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, in order to remove perceived constraints on American interests and power. The Artemis Accords also end debates active after the Trump administration took office about whether the Outer Space Treaty is antiquated and unduly restricts U.S. space activities.
Through the accords, the United States is using its influence as the predominant spacefaring nation to strengthen international space law. As space law expert Christopher Johnson noted, NASA described “the Artemis Accords as an ‘ode to the Outer Space Treaty’ in how they reiterate its principles and incorporate them in a manner specific to lunar activity.” The Outer Space Treaty, and treaties on more specific space issues, will provide the legal foundation for NASA’s bilateral Artemis agreements with other space agencies, reaffirming their status as lodestars for the governance of space activities on the Moon, Mars, and other solar system bodies.
The accords do not mention the Moon Agreement (1979). This treaty has been controversial because it proclaims that the Moon and its resources are the “common heritage of mankind,” a formulation that has never been popular with the United States. However, only 18 countries have ratified the agreement, and no major spacefaring country has joined it. Instead, the Artemis Accords address access to, and use of, lunar resources through the Outer Space Treaty.
In addition, the accords include principles that, when integrated in agreements between NASA and other space agencies, will develop international space law. For example, the commitment to deconflict lunar activities through safety zones applies to a specific context the Outer Space Treaty’s principles of avoiding harmful interference with the space activities of other countries through having due regard for the interests of those countries. Such operational application of general principles can generate state practice and create precedents that give international space law more focus and clarity.
Governance Challenges for the Artemis Accords
Many countries have plans to launch missions to the Moon, and the Artemis Accords do not apply to foreign space activities conducted outside the Artemis Program. Lunar operations by, for example, China do not have to abide by the Artemis Accords if conducted without NASA participation. However, the accords provide an important diplomatic, legal, and normative reference point for lunar missions that other countries undertake and, thus, have significance for space governance beyond any bilateral agreements NASA concludes.
The Artemis Accords will be intergovernmental and will not apply to commercial enterprises interested in pursuing lunar activities. NASA will negotiate contracts with any space companies working through the Artemis Program, as it typically does in projects involving the private sector. For the Artemis Accords to retain legitimacy, the onus will be on NASA to have these contracts reflect, where relevant, the Artemis principles. Where U.S. private-sector activities are undertaken without NASA participation, the U.S. government will need to ensure that they too comply, as necessary and appropriate, with the principles in the accords.
The most controversial aspect of the Artemis Accords involves the issue of space resources. The accords reinforce the long-standing U.S. position that the Outer Space Treaty permits countries to use resources, such as minerals and ice on the Moon and Mars, in space activities. In April, President Trump issued an executive order re-confirming the U.S. view that space is not a “global commons” and that U.S. policy encourages “international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”
The U.S. position is not universally shared, and the executive order generated criticism. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, compared the U.S. stance to colonialism, in claiming for the United States the right to seize territories and resources in space. Similarly, Russian officials expressed unease about the Artemis Accords and their compatibility with international law, with the Roscosmos director asserting that “the principle of invasion is the same, whether it be the Moon or Iraq.” This reaction suggests that Russia and like-minded countries might oppose the accords in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space or create a rival governance initiative on lunar activities.
Any such efforts will not deter the United States. As the world’s leading spacefaring power, it has tremendous leverage in setting the conditions under which other countries participate in the Artemis Program. The Artemis Accords embrace rules and principles developed through multilateralism rather than a scofflaw version of American unilateralism. The agreements that NASA concludes with other space agencies will serve as evidence of international support for the U.S. position on the use of space resources. Here, the United States uses American power and influence to advance its interests through international agreements that implement principles anchored in multilateral regimes for space activities. As it should be.