“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Neil Armstrong spoke those immortal words on July 20, 1969 when he became the first human to walk on the Moon.
Come 2025, NASA is hoping to hear, “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for feminism and equality,” as it lands the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.
The push for equality in space began in June 2010, when President Barack Obama issued the National Space Policy of the United States of America, in which he declared that NASA would “set far-reaching exploration milestones” and send humans beyond the Moon. President Donald Trump amended this phrase, elaborating on the United States’ exploration goals, in his Presidential Memorandum on Reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration Program. He ordered the United States and NASA to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system…[which] will lead [to] the return of humans to the Moon…followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
Encouraged by support from two drastically different White Houses, on May 14, 2019, NASA announced its plans to return humans to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17’s final departure in 1972, and 50 years after Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11’s first lunar landing.
This is the Artemis Program.
The Artemis Program is so named because, in Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin of
Apollo. Apollo is the God of the Sun, and the Associate Director of NASA’s Lewis Research Center from 1952-1970 Dr. Abe Silverstein thought the image of “Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed [lunar landing] program”.
Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, personifies our modern journey from Earth to the Moon, and, as one of the first long-term NASA projects to be named after a woman, gives representation to those who have yet to see themselves in the astronauts who have walked on the Moon.
Affectionately known as the “Moon to Mars Missions”, the Artemis Program seeks to establish the interstellar and lunar infrastructure necessary to turn the Moon into a rest stop for astronauts on their way to Mars. By the end of the program, NASA envisions that an Artemis Mission will have seven broad steps, incorporating all the technology necessary for further space exploration:
- The Space Launch System (SLS), the strongest rocket built for human flight, will propel astronauts in the Orion spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere (Image 1).
- The Orion will separate from the SLS, which will return to Earth to be reused on the next flight. The astronauts will then begin their 238,900-mile journey to the Moon.
- Once at the Moon, the Orion will dock with the Gateway, an outpost orbiting the Moon much like the International Space Station orbits Earth (Image 2). The Gateway will be powered by a solar electric propulsion system, and have crew cabins, labs for science, cargo space, and docking ports for visiting vehicles among its many amenities. It will be sustained by regular cargo deliveries of food, water, and scientific instruments.
- The astronauts will descend to the lunar surface from the Gateway in the Human Landing System (HLS). During initial Artemis missions, the crew will live in the HLS vehicle. However, NASA envisions an eventual:
- Crew transfer from HLS to the foundation service habitat at the Artemis Base Camp, which will be located on the Lunar South Pole (Image 3). The Artemis Base Camp will have three components: an unpressurized Lunar Terrain Vehicle, in which the astronauts will have to wear their spacesuits; a pressurized habitable mobility platform, which will enable long- duration research trips away from camp; and a foundation service habitat that can accommodate a crew of up to four astronauts.
- After the lunar exploration is complete, the astronauts will return to the HLS, and then ascend back to the Gateway.
- From the Gateway, they will return to the Orion, and then back to Earth.
IMAGE 1: A rendering of the SLS and Orion (white bit at the top) on the launch pad. (image credit: NASA) – See below
IMAGE 2: A rendering of the Orion (left) approaching the Gateway (right). (image credit: NASA) – See below
IMAGE 3: A rending of the Artemis Base Camp. – See below
(image credit: NASA)
Much of this technology is still theoretical, and NASA is working in partnership with other nations and private companies to construct this infrastructure. The regulation of these commercial and international relationships introduces many questions about who will control access to future space travel, and how we as a species intend to govern future celestial affairs.
The Outer Space Treaty has governed all affairs in space since the Cold War.
Modelled off the Antarctic Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty is a non-armament treaty that was signed by all United Nations members in October 1967, and whose primary goal was to preemptively ban nuclear weapons from space. As the world’s two nuclear and spacefaring superpowers, the United States and the then-Soviet Union debated the treaty’s wording: the Soviet Union’s draft treaty dealt with the entirety of outer space, while the United States only considered “celestial bodies,” such as the Moon, asteroids, and other planets. It was eventually determined that governing the entirety of outer space was crucial to international peace, and the United States agreed to the Soviet Union’s wording.
Today, NASA requires that any nation wishing to join the Artemis Program must also sign its Artemis Accords. It must be noted that, unlike the Outer Space Treaty, the Artemis Accords are not legally binding, and any nation found to be in violation of the Accords cannot be punished by the United Nations or any other intergovernmental body. The national can only be removed from the Artemis Program and possibly barred from subsequent partnerships with NASA.
NASA describes the Accords as “a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space,” and much of the Artemis Accords (AA) is modelled off the Outer Space Treaty (OST):
- Both acknowledge that outer space exploration should be conducted in a “peaceful” (OST) and “civil” (AA) manner, with OST specifying the prohibition of “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in space.
- Both proclaim that all exploration of outer space will be to benefit the entire human race, with AA adding that all of its signatories agree to “preserve outer space heritage, [such as] historically significant human or robotic landing sites, artifacts, spacecraft, and other evidence of activity on celestial bodies.”
- Both prohibit any nation from laying claim to or appropriating any part of outer space.
- And, both require that astronauts of all nationalities receive assistance from any country that finds itself able to lend said assistance (commonly known as “Astronaut Retrieval”).
The most noticeable difference between the Artemis Accords and the Outer Space Treaty, and one of the main reasons many nations refuse to sign the Accords, is that the Artemis Accords were written by NASA and the U.S. government with no international input, thereby protecting only American spacefaring interests.
The Accords introduce the idea of “safety zones” to support the United States’ belief that “the extraction and utilization of space resources, including any recovery from the surface or subsurface of the Moon, Mars, comets, or asteroids…does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.”
A “safety zone” is an area in space established by each nation in which it can conduct “nominal operations of a relevant activity or an anomalous event”, so long as it notifies the other spacefaring nations of the area’s creation. All other spacefaring nations, according to the Accords, agree to “avoid harmful interference” within the safety zones. (The Accords leave the exact definitions of “nominal operations”, “anomalous events”, and “harmful interference” up to the readers’ imaginations.)
The predominant interpretation of “safety zones” is that the United States is creating areas of space that cannot be regulated or monitored by other nations. If this is the case, how would an American safety zone on the Moon be different from the American territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, or American Samoa? And then, would not a “safety zone” be equivalent to the U.S. laying claim to tracts of land on the Moon, much in the same way the British Empire laid claim to the New World? And then would not the U.S. be engaging in the “national appropriation” of space in violation of the Outer Space Treaty and international law?
Rossana Deplano, a lecturer in law at the University of Leicester and Co-Director of the Center for European Law and Internationalisation, published an article where she put the Artemis Accords in conversation with other space treaties, including the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, and the U.N. Guidelines of the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space.
While Deplano lauds the Accords for their innovative methods to “encourage and facilitate the implementation of the Outer Space Treaty’s obligations”, she supports scholars such as Stephan Hobe, the Director of the Institute of Air and Space Law at the University of Cologne, who argue that the Accords “are an attempt by the Americans to walk softly” into control of outer space governance.
Hobe’s choice of words in his keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) harken back to American foreign policy at the beginning of the twentieth century, when President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States would “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The common interpretation of this phrase was that the United States would peacefully negotiate with South American nations supported by the unspoken threat of military intervention. Does the U.S. intend for the Artemis Accords to be its whisper into international celestial law and politics as it seeks to dominate the Final Frontier?
As of this writing, eleven nations have signed the Artemis Accords:
Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, South Korea, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Additionally, the European Space Agency (ESA) signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA that included the Artemis Accords when it agreed to construct the Gateway.
Russia, one of the U.S.’s closest spacefaring allies (two of the three astronauts on the original International Space Station crew were from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos), and one of the U.S.’s largest economic and military rivals, is notably absent from the list of signatories. Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, explained Russia’s skepticism of the Accords at the IAC, saying, “For the United States, this is now more of a political project…There is America; everyone else must help and pay…we are not interested in participating in such a project.”
Additionally, China, another one of the U.S.’s fiercest economic and military rivals, is not allowed to even consider signing the Accords or joining the Artemis Program. The Wolf Amendment was attached to a congressional spending bill in 2011, and prohibits any scientific coordination between China and the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) and NASA. However, the Scientific American reported that Russia and China intend to establish their own joint research base on the Moon as both nations are “skeptical of the U.S.’s lunar intentions.”
And Germany stands out even further among NASA’s longtime international partners as a country who has not signed the Accords, but has begun assisting in the Orion spacecraft’s construction.
As NASA seeks to push the world into a new era of space exploration and inspire the “Artemis Generation” as it inspired the Apollo, it has to make sure it holds every spacefaring nation (the United States included) accountable to the same set of rules, whether those be the rules in the Outer Space Treaty or in a new treaty modelled off the Artemis Accords. Humanity cannot push blindly into outer space as Europe pushed blindly into the New World, destroying civilizations and ecosystems in a quest for resources, land, and power. As celestial history unfolds before us, we have to learn from the past and work together to regulate and protect this unexplored frontier.