Why France signs NASA’s lunar exploration pact is the most important signature yet

Why France signs NASA’s lunar exploration pact is the most important signature yet

Why France signs NASA’s lunar exploration pact is the most important signature yet

On Tuesday evening, France officially signed NASA’s Artemis Accords — the space agency’s set of guidelines and principles for how the US and other countries should explore the moon in the future. The addition of France, long considered a major gain for the Artemis Accords, brings the total number of signatory countries to 20, reinforcing the international agreement ahead of NASA’s planned return to the lunar surface this decade.

When the final Artemis Accords were presented during the Trump administration in October 2020, NASA announced that eight countries had signed the document, including the United States. But there were some notable absentees on that list. Two of the world’s largest space superpowers – China and Russia – have not signed, and the Russian space chief has made it clear that the country is not interested in partnering with NASA in its lunar exploration efforts. Two of Europe’s largest space countries, France and Germany, were also not on board.

Now, after two years, France has finally come to the table and is considered the most important signatory to the accords to date. “It was critical to get France on the same page as us for our lunar exploration and other plans, because together with Germany they are the dominant player in Europe,” Gabriel Swiney, senior policy advisor at NASA and one of the original authors of the chords, tells The edge† France is the largest contributor to the European Space Agency’s budget. The US also has a long-standing partnership with the French space agency CNES, and the country plays a vital role in operating the launch site and rockets for Arianespace, Europe’s main launch supplier.

France was initially not completely sold on the accords. “They’ve been open about the need for clarity on some of the issues with the Artemis Accords,” Swiney said. Now it appears the country’s problems have been resolved with the agreement, giving the accords an important stamp of approval from a once skeptical country.

While the Artemis Accords are an international document, they are intrinsically linked to NASA’s lunar ambitions. The name Artemis comes from NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface as early as 2025. While the timing of that landing is subject to change, NASA saw the need to negotiate a preemptive international agreement with other nations before humans walked back on the moon, outlining the rules and standards to be applied to lunar exploration. “What we’re trying to do is establish standards of behavior that any country can agree to,” said former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in 2020. NASA worked with the United States Department of State to draft the final rules.

The Artemis Accords build on the backbone of international space law, known as the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty, which came into effect in 1967, creates a loose framework for how nations should explore outer space. The signatories agree to explore space peacefully, not to claim sovereignty over celestial bodies such as the Moon and Mars, and not to place weapons of mass destruction in space. But the Outer Space Treaty is vague in scope, leaving many of its principles open to interpretation and debate over the past half-century.

The Artemis Accords go further and focus on slightly more rigid standards for moon exploration. For example, the agreement establishes areas on the moon called “safety zones.” If a country is carrying out work on an area of ​​the lunar surface, it will notify the other signatories and other countries will not interfere with that area. The accords also call for the preservation of historic sites, such as the landing sites for the Apollo missions, as well as protection of the “extraction and use” of space resources. That way, countries can mine the moon for materials and then use those materials in their exploration efforts on the moon.

When the Artemis Accords were first presented, they were met with quite a bit of criticism. A major criticism concerned the use of lunar resources, with some arguing that the accords were an American land grab in space. The concept of using space resources is seen by some as inconsistent with the Outer Space Treaty’s instruction not to claim the sovereignty of a celestial body. In fact, according to Swiney, this was partly one of France’s concerns in the beginning.

“France is one of the countries that has made it clear that they think space resources are something that the international community really needs to spend some time on and think about,” he says. “So it doesn’t turn into a gold rush situation in the Wild West, or it just doesn’t replicate some of the same inequalities we see on Earth.”

NASA and government officials teamed up with the French space agency to try to end what they believed to be a misconception that space resources were banned by the Outer Space Treaty. Finally, France came around, with NASA touting the Artemis Accords as just a starting point — not an end to the discussion about space resources. Under the accords, countries can extract resources, but “You have to do it legally and you have to keep talking about it and solving some of these bigger questions.” says Swiney. “So I think they realized that was a good starting point and then tackle the issues that they’re still very excited about.”

The next big European step would be Germany, the second largest contributor to ESA, and Swiney is optimistic about the prospect. “I think it will take time for countries to become familiar with the agreements,” he says. “They hear not just one US government, but two US governments talking about them… And as we go on… [Artemis] missions, which are really focused on science and exploration, I think people are realizing that the Artemis Accords are really exactly what they claim to be, which is trying to create rules for exploration and science.”

Another status criticism of the accords revolved around the fact that NASA did not go through the traditional process of treaty formation through the United Nations. “I think that concern has really been allayed by the signatories we’ve gotten,” Swiney says. The Artemis Accords include a diverse group of some non-traditional spacefaring nations, such as Columbia and Bahrain. As more countries sign up, it’s possible that the Artemis Accords could serve as a new framework for international space agreements in the future — one that may be slightly faster and more agile than the often sluggish treaty route.

“It’s the idea that all of these things are complementary and that the agreements will in turn contribute to the United Nations process,” Swiney said. “But at the same time, we are not going to sit around and wait for the entire international community to give advice when we are about to go back to the moon and we need rules.

Swiney says he is looking forward to more signatories in the coming months. Aside from Germany, he notes that India would be a particularly welcome signatory given the country’s robust space program. And soon the Artemis Accords will move from theoretical policy guidelines to implementation once flights to the moon begin, which will end up being the more difficult part of the process. But the fact that the document has so far gained so many adherents is a big win.

“We knew these were topics that needed to be addressed before we got to the moon and moved on, especially in a persistent way,” Swiney says. “But we just weren’t sure if it was something we could do. And I think that story has really changed since 2020.”