Modi and Biden
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden during a June 22 press conference where Modi briefly mentioned India signing the Artemis Accords. Credit: White House

WASHINGTON — The governments of the United States and India have agreed to work more closely together in spaceflight, with India signing the Artemis Accords and the two countries planning for a joint mission of some kind to the International Space Station.

The two countries disclosed those plans June 22 as part of a broader partnership between the countries announced during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States. That visit featured a joint press conference at the White House with President Biden.

That partnership included India becoming the 27th nation to sign the Artemis Accords. “By taking the decision to join the Artemis Accords, we have taken a big leap forward in our space cooperation,” Modi, speaking through an interpreter, said at the press conference. “In fact, in short, for India and America partnership, even the sky is not the limit.”

In a fact sheet distributed by the White House, the governments said they agreed that NASA and the Indian space agency ISRO would develop “a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation” by the end of the year. NASA had agreed early this year to provide “advanced training” for an Indian astronaut at the Johnson Space Center.

The fact sheet added that the agencies had “a goal of launching a joint effort to the International Space Station in 2024.” It was not clear what that would involve, although one industry source speculated it may involve NASA assisting ISRO in some way to fly an Indian astronaut on a private mission to the station.

India is developing its own crewed spacecraft, Gaganyaan, but has fallen behind an original schedule set by Modi in 2018 to perform a crewed flight in 2022. That first crewed mission is now expected no earlier than 2025 after a series of uncrewed abort tests and orbital test flights.

The agreement adds to existing cooperation with NASA in space projects, including the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Earth science mission. That spacecraft, using a radar provided by NASA on a spacecraft built by ISRO, is scheduled to launch early next year on an Indian rocket.

A bigger milestone to many, though, was India aligning itself with NASA and other nations that have signed the Artemis Accords. India has taken pains in the past not to become too close to the U.S. or other Western nations, or to Russia, in space, electing to conduct a series of smaller cooperative efforts with many countries. Indian officials have also, in international meetings, expressed a preference for binding agreements created through formal processes rather that a non-binding agreement like the Accords.

“India signing the Accords is a transformative moment for the Accords and the Artemis program,” Mike Gold, chief growth officer at Redwire Space and a former NASA official who spearheaded development of the Accords in 2020 while at the agency, told SpaceNews.

He noted India has an existing program of lunar and Martian exploration, including the launch in July of Chandrayaan-3, the country’s second lunar lander. “By joining Artemis, India will be catapulted to the forefront of human space exploration, enjoying the benefits of the technologies and capabilities that will be developed through this singular journey of discovery,” he said. “Conversely, the Artemis program will benefit greatly from the India’s extraordinary capacity to innovate and conduct ambitious activities in an affordable fashion.”

The announcement, while a major development for India’s space ambitions and for Artemis, was relatively low-key. Unlike many other countries, there was no formal signing ceremony for India, only the announcement that it had signed, and neither country released more details about their planned cooperation in human spaceflight.

Neither NASA nor ISRO publicized the signing of the Accords or new cooperation in human spaceflight beyond a brief comment from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We look forward to all that we will accomplish here on Earth and in space, including our joint Earth science mission NISAR, and are especially grateful for India’s signing of the Artemis Accords,” he tweeted. “We can do more when we work together!”

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...