NASA’s inspector general said that international cooperation on Artemis, including the lunar Gateway, is hindered by a lack of coordination and obstacles like U.S. export control regulations. Credit: NASA/Alberto Bertolin

WASHINGTON — NASA’s inspector general says that the agency needs to do a better job coordinating international partnerships in its Artemis lunar exploration campaign and overcoming obstacles like export control.

A report released Jan. 17 by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found strong international interest in Artemis, which NASA can use to reduce the overall cost of the effort to return humans to the moon. That interest, they said, is evident in the contributions countries are making to Artemis missions as well as the 23 nations that have signed the Artemis Accords outlining best practices for sustainable space exploration.

“Given the scientific and exploration potential that the Moon and Mars hold, NASA’s Artemis campaign has drawn significant interest from space agencies around the world,” the report stated. It noted that, as of October 2022, NASA had signed 54 Artemis-related agreements with other space agencies and governments. Twenty-three of those were with the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency JAXA, while the rest were with 14 other countries.

However, the report said that coordination of those agreements was done on an ad hoc basis without any “overarching strategy” to manage requirements and expectations. “The lack of a coordinated approach makes it difficult for NASA to manage expectations regarding an international partner’s potential contribution and creates confusion about what they should contribute,” OIG concluded.

The report contrasted that management with the International Space Station program, which has a detailed structure of panels and boards to coordinate the roles of the international partners, managed by an intergovernmental agreement or IGA. While the space station IGA is being used to manage contributions to the lunar Gateway, both NASA and partners agree that this agreement can’t be extended to additional Artemis activities.

One major challenge to international cooperation highlighted in the report is export control. The OIG reported that implementation of U.S. export controls “routinely limit NASA’s Artemis collaborations with international partners and inhibit future collaborations.”

One example is that export control regulations make it difficult for astronauts from NASA partners to participate in Artemis-related projects unless formally assigned to a mission. The report noted that JAXA has not sent an astronaut to the Johnson Space Center to prepare for Gateway missions because of limited access to data even though Gateway is a multinational program with Japanese contributions.

NASA is also hindered by a confusing web of different export control regulations governing components that fall under the Export Administration Regulation (EAR) overseen by the Commerce Department and the more restrictive International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) overseen by the State Department. In one example, both the European Service Module for the Orion spacecraft and an adapter to connect it to Orion’s crew module are separately classified to fall under EAR. But, when the service module and adapter are combined, the hardware then falls under ITAR.

Despite these challenges, the OIG report concluded there were cost benefits to international partnerships on Artemis, citing an Aerospace Corporation study that found that NASA projects with international contributions experienced less cost growth than those without such partnerships.

The report concluded that NASA should do more to take advantage of cost-sharing, finding that only 6% of the costs of the first three Artemis missions will fall on international partners, versus 25% of costs to run the U.S. segment of the ISS. “With NASA’s current budget profile projecting $93 billion in Artemis costs between fiscal years 2012 and 2025, more effective international partner participation and cost management strategies would better position NASA to achieve its long-term Artemis objectives.”

The report made 10 recommendations to NASA on ways to improve coordination with international partners on Artemis, including export control changes. NASA accepted all of them other than one calling for “a detailed gap analysis and cost estimate” for missions beyond Artemis 4, saying in a response included in the report that the overall Artemis effort was not “bounded in such a way to accommodate conducting a defensible cost estimate on a multi-decade campaign.”

OIG released the report the same day as a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, which includes international collaboration as one of its “priority focus areas.” Committee members did not discuss the report at the meeting and generally praised NASA for its efforts to bring in international partners to Artemis.

“The goal of Artemis is to be the largest coalition of space partners in history,” said Kay Bailey Hutchison, a former senator and U.S. ambassador to NATO. “All of the work that is being done is going to make that a reality.”

UAE Gateway role

The OIG report also appeared to indirectly confirm a role for the United Arab Emirates in the lunar Gateway. NASA officials have said for months that they are in discussions with an unnamed country to provide an airlock module for the Gateway, a contribution originally assigned to Russia before that country elected not to participate in the effort.

A report in December by The National, a UAE publication, stated that Boeing was “actively working” with the UAE government on the design of an airlock for the Gateway. Neither NASA nor the UAE government have confirmed those discussions.

The OIG report also stated that NASA was in talks with an unnamed “international partner” to provide an airlock module for the Gateway for launch in the late 2020s. In another table in the report listing various international partnerships, the UAE Space Agency is identified as offering “potential contributions” to the Gateway, a designation given to no other agency. In a report appendix, the UAE Space Agency listed “airlock production” as an emerging capability.

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...