The United States, under the Trump administration, has aimed to excite interest in space activities, including through the highly publicised creation of the Space Force and the manned space flight missions with SpaceX. Importantly, the announcement of the Artemis Accords in mid-May is an extension of such an effort. The Accords are envisioned as a set of bilateral agreements with the intent to return astronauts to the moon and beyond. Led by the United States and a series of commercial and international partners, they mark a seminal development in the outer space governance regime. As the United States and its international partners venture to create and strengthen outer space governance, non-space faring nations must be included in future agreements to ensure they are not systematically excluded from accessing lunar resources and development opportunities.
The Artemis Accords program is spearheaded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan, Canada, and Australia. With the goal of placing the first woman and next man on the moon, the Accords will be an important foundation in future human space exploration, establishing a sustainable and robust presence on the Moon with the ultimate goal of advancing to Mars. Importantly, the Accords strengthen existing aspects of international space law, such as the peaceful purposes requirement outlined in the Outer Space Treaty as well as aspects of the Rescue Agreement and Registration Convention. These agreements form the basis of international space law, governing protocols and outlining international obligations for a variety of space activities, including space travel. These developments are highly significant in the future creation of an outer space regime as they place agreements between NASA and other government space agencies at the forefront of outer space law.
While the Accords do strengthen several fundamental aspects of international space law, they are silent concerning the Moon Agreement, which, in part, outlines how resources on the Moon will be distributed throughout the international community. The Moon Agreement establishes that the resources on the Moon are the common heritage of mankind, and under the agreement, states would be required to disseminate resources (and intellectual property) about lunar materials to developing countries who cannot travel to space themselves. The United States, Russia, China, and other major space-faring nations have chosen not to sign the agreement and its applicability in international space law has been debated. Considering that the United States is not a party to the Agreement, there was little expectation that the Artemis Accords would reference it; however, when the Accords are viewed in reference to the Moon Agreement, it appears that in pursuit of American-led development, non-space faring nations will be excluded from the new economic opportunities on the final frontier.
I am not alone in this concern. Russia has recently rejected efforts to privatise the Moon, equating the Accords to colonialism. Other scholars equate the Artemis Accords, as designed, to the earlier age of exploration. While these viewpoints perhaps fail to recognise the benefits of the Accords, they do rightly point out an area for improvement and further discussion. Considering that the United States has rejected the Moon Agreement, which echoed developing countries’ concerns regarding the distribution of space resources and wealth, the Accords should reflect a sensitivity to such concerns if they truly aim to pioneer humanity’s return to the moon rather than simply America’s return to the Moon.
To create a more inclusive space-governance regime, the United States should look towards the current policies governing deep-sea bed mining, which has many similarities to space mining in that both require the balance of more powerful state interests with the interests of developing countries. The Law of the Sea, an international treaty that governs our oceans, establishes deep-sea bed resources as the common heritage of mankind. In mediating the distribution of deep-sea bed resources, the international community developed the concept of a parallel system. This system necessitated that every minable site be split into two parts—one for the mining company that claimed the site for extraction of resources and the other for the United Nations agency, the Enterprise. Even though subsequent agreements weakened the power of the Enterprise, such a dualistic approach could still be fruitful in ensuring that developing countries, including those with fledgling space programs, can have access to celestial resources. Without such guarantees or discussions, there is a very real possibility that nations get left behind amidst the first claims to lunar resources. While the Artemis Accords’ commitment to share and release scientific data is an important first step, the distribution of resources has yet to be properly addressed in the program.
As the United States aims to shape the next epoch of human history with its forays into outer space, it must be considered who will benefit and who will be left behind. While the Artemis Accords bolster important aspects of the Outer Space Treaty and existing international space law, they leave many questions to be answered. Primarily, it ignores the legitimate concerns of non-space faring nations, who have interests in lunar resources. Moreover, it could escalate tensions and heighten the risk of future conflict between the United States and other space-faring nations who were not included in the Accords. It is certainly a giant leap for the United States and its coalition of international partners; however, whether the agreement represents a leap for humankind remains to be determined.