NASA announces Artemis Accords for international cooperation in lunar exploration

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Updated 2:45 p.m. Eastern with comments from NASA Administrator Bridenstine.

WASHINGTON — NASA will ask countries that seek to cooperate on the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration program to follow a series of principles that the agency says is intended to support a “safe, prosperous and peaceful” future in space.

“How do we go all the way to the surface of the moon and what are the regulatory and policy requirements that we need to accomplish in order to get to the surface of the moon?” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in comments introducing what the agency calls the “Artemis Accords” during a May 15 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Regulatory and Policy Committee. “We need a framework for how we’re all going to cooperate on the surface of the moon.”

The Artemis Accords will be a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and other countries that want to cooperate on the Artemis program. They will cover all kinds of activities involved with lunar exploration with the exception of the lunar Gateway, whose international cooperation will be handed through an extension of the existing intergovernmental agreement (IGA) for the International Space Station.

“While the IGA is a terrific and historic document, as we move forward to the moon with the Artemis program, we will be encountering all kinds of incredible new opportunities for exploration and science,” Mike Gold, acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations, said in an interview. “It will require a new legal framework to enact partnerships under Artemis.”

The Artemis Accords will cover a series of principles, many of which Gold said implement aspects of the Outer Space Treaty and other space treaties. Those include affirming exploration for peaceful purposes, registration of space objects and providing emergency assistance.

Other principles in the accords cover transparency in plans and operations, technical interoperability of space systems, free release of science data, protecting landing sites of Apollo and robotic lunar missions, and abiding by United Nations guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space by mitigating orbital debris.

The accords also call for the creation of “safety zones” around sites where NASA and its partners are conducting activities. Gold argued that such zones are intended to avoid harmful interference in accordance with provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.

The accords endorse the right to extract and use lunar resources, something Gold described as “widely accepted.” The White House, in an April 6 executive order, directed the State Department to lead interagency efforts to encourage other countries to adopt the American position that both public and private organizations have the right to use space resources. The order called for doing so through a series of bilateral or multilateral agreements.

Gold said that the contents of the Artemis Accord are only now being discussed with any potential international partners. NASA only recently completed an interagency review process to get approval to share the documents with other nations, and thus doesn’t have any immediate partners to announce.

There have been hints, though, that such an agreement would be forthcoming. Besides the executive order, Bridenstine said May 5 that NASA would ask countries interested in cooperating in Artemis to support “norms of behavior” for safe space operations.

“Countries all around the world want to be a part of this, that’s the element of national power,” he said of Artemis during a Center for Strategic and International Studies webinar. “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 said then that the agency would say more about those plans “next week.”

Gold said that the Artemis Accords offer an incentive for countries that want to cooperate with NASA, including new partners, to adopt practices and principles that the U.S. supports. “The administrator wants to use this singular opportunity that we have with the Artemis program to take our principles and move them forward, with the U.S. leading both in technology and policy,” he said.

The IGA used for the ISS, and extended for the Gateway, wouldn’t work well for the rest of Artemis, Gold argued. “The IGA inherently wouldn’t fit the nature of the activities on the surface of the moon on in cislunar space, with the exception of Gateway,” he said. It is also difficult to add new countries to the IGA.

“The Artemis Accords are an inherently organic and open framework. They allow us to work with any country that expresses an interest,” he said. The details of each bilateral agreement will be tailored, he said, to the partnering country’s planned activities.