Astronauts on the moon
Countries that want to cooperate with NASA on the Artemis program may need to agree to follow "norms of behavior" for safe space operations as a condition for being a partner, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said May 5. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wants the space agency to play a bigger role in national strategy, including requiring countries interested in participating in the Artemis program to accept “norms of behavior” for safe space operations.

Bridenstine, speaking May 5 at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) webinar, said that the agency’s achievements in space, which are often overlooked, even within the country, can help demonstrate national power and improve the country’s standing on the global stage.

“NASA is methodically going, step by step, through a number of very stunning achievements that should be inspiring the world,” he said.

Bridenstine said that after China landed the Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon early last year, unnamed members of Congress asked him to explain “how the United States of America fell so far behind China in space exploration.” He notes that the Chinese landing came a little more than a month after NASA made its eighth successful landing on Mars with the InSight mission, and around the time the New Horizons spacecraft flew by an object in the distant Kuiper Belt, feats far more difficult than a lunar landing.

“It became apparent to me, as members of Congress were calling, that we need to be more engaged in the national strategy apparatus,” he said. “From a strategic perspective, we need to be engaged with our interagency partners and with our international partners in a very robust way.”

He promoted NASA’s role in supporting a theory of national power known as DIME, for diplomatic, information, military and economic power. NASA has a major role to play in all aspects of the DIME model other than military, he argued.

He emphasized in particular the role NASA can play in diplomacy through international cooperation, including with countries that are not traditional allies of the United States. “It gives us an opportunity to engage in dialogue, maybe have a sweetener for a trade deal,” he said. “NASA should be, and actually is, engaged in these kinds of activities, but I think we could do more in that sense.”

One example he gave later in the event is imposing conditions on countries that want to participate in the Artemis program. “Countries all around the world want to be a part of this, that’s the element of national power,” he said of Artemis. “Then we can say, ‘OK, if you want to be part of this, here are the norms of behavior that we expect to see.’”

He suggested that countries that “damage space, put space exploration at risk” would not be invited to cooperate on Artemis. “This is, in essence, leverage that enables us to talk to our international partners about what is expected behavior,” he said.

Bridenstine didn’t elaborate on what those proposed norms of behavior would encompass, but said the agency has been working with the State Department on the topic. “We might have more to say on that next week,” he said.

Reuters reported May 5 that the U.S. government has been in discussions with other nations about a proposed international agreement called the “Artemis Accords” regarding lunar activities. The proposal would reportedly include “safety zones” around bases, a version of “noninterference zones” long discussed in space policy circles intended to promote safety but which could also create a de facto form of property rights.

Bridenstine didn’t discuss that agreement at the CSIS event, but did emphasize the importance of resource extraction in its lunar plans. “These are important capabilities that we need to develop,” he said.

An April 6 executive order directed the State Department to seek international support for the U.S. view that companies or governments that extract space resources hold the rights to them. A senior administration official said at the time that the order was linked in part to NASA’s plans for long-term lunar exploration, including the use of lunar resources. “We’re having State Department reach out to our counterparts, partners, because we still, of course, want to talk about international cooperation on Artemis,” that official said.

Bridenstine said that he hopes that the current International Space Station partners will also cooperate on Artemis. While Canada, Europe and Japan have all committed to doing so, Russia has yet to make a similar formal agreement to do so.

“Is Russia going to want to be a part of it, and at what level? That’s a question I don’t know the answer to at this point,” he said. Any cooperation with Russia, he said, would have to avoid the dependency that NASA had on Russia for ISS access since the retirement of the space shuttle. “If Russia is interested, we would like to see what they’re interested in doing.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...