Reaching for the Moon, Mars and beyond: This is how space exploration can benefit all

By Steven J. Demetriou | 30 July 2020
World Economic Forum

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on 30 May 2020 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

The launch of NASA’s fifth Mars rover marks a new milestone in the era of space exploration. It puts focus on the need for greater collaboration, equity and inclusion among international partners to ensure the sustainable, peaceful and fair use of resources. Guidelines for interacting and norms of behaviour are as essential to ensure success in space as on Earth.

The Artemis Accords: a framework for cooperation

The Artemis Accords, recently announced by NASA, is a framework to encourage international cooperation and ensure a safe, prosperous and sustainable future for all humankind in space. The Accords are bi-lateral agreements between the United States and other nations who wish to collaborate with NASA on the Artemis program, and they build on existing agreements with countries already involved in NASA-led programs such as the International Space Station.

Such international partnerships will play a key role in achieving a sustainable and robust presence on the Moon while preparing to conduct a historic human mission to Mars.

As NASA’s flagship exploration initiative, Artemis will land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, ushering in a new era for space exploration and utilization. Potential international partners, as diverse as the member nations of the European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Australia and others are planning to execute either robotic or human-crewed missions to the Moon, Mars and distant celestial bodies such as the moons of Jupiter and asteroids.

The Artemis Accords include a series of principles, many of which reinforce and implement aspects of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty. They include:

  • Affirming space exploration for peaceful purposes
  • Registration of space objects to minimize harmful interference for participants
  • Providing emergency assistance to astronauts in distress
  • Ensuring transparency in plans and operations
  • Compatibility of space systems developed by signing countries
  • Public release of all science data
  • Protecting heritage sites
  • Ensuring the long-term sustainability of space by mitigating orbital debris

While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was a critical first step, more must be done to create a legal and regulatory framework that is conducive to robust and sustainable activities on the Moon, Mars and beyond. If the Artemis Accords are to achieve their goals, issues such as the use of in-situ resources and the rules governing settlements on the Moon or Mars must be resolved and agreements formed. NASA and several international partners are actively negotiating the details of the Lunar Gateway Memorandum of Understandings and discussions of the Artemis Accords text have begun.

The secrets of the solar system can drive economic return for all

The economic challenges of executing an ambitious long-term space exploration program make it nearly impossible for nations to “go it alone”. Collaboration among potential partners are key to enabling a multi-decade program with the potential to reveal the secrets of our solar system and drive economic return. This approach supports partner nations in maximizing investments and eliminating duplication of effort; enabling a broader and deeper exploration program with peaceful, cooperative and fair utilization of resources at its heart. Agreements between participants can encourage healthy competition and avoid potential conflict.

This approach can also support equity and inclusion by providing opportunities for nations that might not otherwise be able to participate in space exploration due to financial or other constraints. Achieving balance between space-faring and non-space-faring developing countries will help avoid future conflicts as new nations join the space club.

Public-private partnerships

Issues around the sharing of enabling technology and potential redistribution of revenue from extracted materials have been stumbling blocks to previous agreements such as the Moon Treaty (1984). The concept of public-private partnerships is currently popular in the United States, with successful demonstrations of “commercial” transport of both cargo and more recently, NASA crew, to the International Space Station by companies like SpaceX, Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

The Accords work towards avoiding a repeat at the Moon of the dangerous and unregulated proliferation of debris that we find in Earth orbit today. Forethought and planning before multiple nation-states or commercial entities begin operations on and around the Moon will enable us to enjoy a sustainable cis-lunar space.

Avoiding danger to other worlds and the Earth’s biosphere

For humankind, agreements on standards of behaviour will help ensure that we neither take dangerous contaminants to other worlds that could harm naturally-evolved life, nor allow hazardous pathogens to enter the Earth’s biosphere. NASA has announced interim policy updates to address this.

It is timely for NASA to work with global entities such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Committee on Space Research to help protect the targets of our exploration efforts as well as our own spaceship Earth via modern, balanced regulations.

NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, recently tweeted, “We will protect scientific discoveries and the Earth’s environment, while enabling dynamic human exploration and commercial innovation on the Moon and Mars.”

With the renewed and expanded interest by many nations to explore space, the Artemis Accords present an opportunity to establish comprehensive and well-considered agreements on sustainable exploration and utilization before the expected initiation of Moon missions.

Agreements like these should mould our thoughts and actions to ensure sustainable exploration of space for all humankind. The time is now to create a sustainable future space legacy, and the Accords are one mechanism to make this happen.

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