The Artemis Accords (the Accords) represents the next grand leap in NASA’s space-faring agenda – a mission to return humans to the Moon by 2024 through an international collaborative effort. The Accords are a set of statutory principles that attempt to guide countries through the murky unregulated policy territory of space collaboration. Thirteen countries have signed the Accords, with Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada being among the first. What is more interesting, though, is which countries have not signed it and why, as well as what this means for the future of the international community.
Critics view the Accords’ requirement for signatories to first sign a bilateral agreement with the United States as an attempt for it to dictate the rules of international space behaviour and regulations for future space projects such as commercialisation and resource mining according to its national interests; therefore, giving the United States immense bargaining power and leverage.
Considering the Accords to be too US-Centric, China and Russia did not sign the Accords, and instead opted to develop their own lunar missions. Even countries that typically are aligned with the United States on multistakeholder, rules-based matters, such as India, France, and Germany, have also not signed the Accords.
This suggests that establishing a clear and universal set of space-faring principles will be difficult at best and impossible at worst, as the international community seeks to reconcile multiple competing interests. The Artemis Accords is a step in the right direction, yet US dominance and the threat of a quasi-legal structure have turned away many, making it ineffective to uphold space law and prevent militaristic conflict.
Military conflict in space may seem like a concept taken straight out of a Sci-Fi movie, yet it represents a potential future for the international community if a unanimously codified treaty is not implemented. In a future where countries choose to abide by their own rules and compete instead of cooperating, space becomes irresistibly exploitable, an untapped market for economically beneficial resources and a near-infinite amount of annexable land.
Resource competition in space and space mining is likely to become the most important point of global contention in the near term. The issues it raises will challenge the principles within the Outer Space Treaty, which declares that space is the common heritage of mankind and not to be exploited. For now, the Outer Space Treaty remains the backbone of space law with 111 countries remaining signatories to the treaty, including Russia, China, and the United States.
While the Artemis Accords represent a new opportunity to rewrite and update the rules of space from the Outer Space Treaty, it is essential that they are rules all countries can agree on. A more pluralistic treaty, incorporating the views and concerns of all countries, whilst aspirational and challenging, is the only way to ensure peaceful cooperation in space and pacify the self-interested inclinations that come with resource competition.
Australia, historically, has played a key role in supporting the US space industry, providing essential broadcasting technologies to events such as the 1969 moon landing, and the monitoring of satellites on the behalf of NASA. We also support the United States in various defence treaties, as well as share many common values, especially that of the rules-based order, free and fair governance and cooperation. Thus, our decision to join the Accords is not a surprise.
But we must be forthright in our advocation for equitably sharing the benefits of future space exploration as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty. The Artemis Accords simply does not represent a favourable starting point to ensure peaceful space resource utilisation and management of potential space warfare. While we expect to benefit from the social and technological advancements associated with the future of space exploration and the development of our own national space industry, we must clarify the norms and values we wish to see in the conduct of all the world’s space forces: of peace, cooperation, equitable opportunity and the advancement of the common good.