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Russia should rethink its rejection of lunar commercialization

Russia should rethink its rejection of lunar commercialization
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The Russian News Agency TASS recently quoted Dmitry Rogozin, the CEO of Russia's Roscosmos State Space Agency, as rejecting the idea of commercial operations on the moon. He stated on the Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station, "We will not, in any case, accept any attempts to privatize the Moon. It is illegal, it runs counter to international law.”

The statement is seen as a rejection of the proposed Artemis Accords, a set of ground rules for behavior of how nations and private entities should explore the moon. The accords, based on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, would, among other things, allow for commercial operations on the lunar surface, particularly the mining of resources. The accords would create international acceptance of a recent American law that allows private companies to retain ownership of resources that they extract.

For the simple reason that the Russian space program is dependent on the support and good will of NASA, Rogozin might want to rethink his rejection of the Artemis Accords.

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The Russian space program is about to lose a lucrative revenue source thanks to the success of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Since the end of the space shuttle, NASA has had to pay increasing amounts of money to Russia for its astronauts to travel to and from the International Space Station. The arrangement not only gave the Russian space program a lot of money, it also gave Russia de facto control over access to the ISS.

A few years ago, Rogozin reminded the United States of Russia’s control over the orbiting space lab when, facing sanctions because of Russian military involvement in Ukraine, he observed that “I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Now NASA has that trampoline, courtesy of SpaceX’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskBlue Origin takes one small step toward being a competitor to SpaceX Virgin Hyperloop to build new certification center in West Virginia SpaceX awarded contract to build US military tracking satellites MORE. In the meantime, as Axios recently pointed out, the Russian space program has seen better days. The loss of NASA money is going to hurt. The Russian space program’s budget has declined from $5 billion a year to about $1.7 billion a year. Brave plans to land robotic probes on the moon or build the long-delayed replacement for the venerable Soyuz seem problematic at best in that fiscal environment.

Clearly, under the current circumstances, if Russia rejects the Artemis Accords and hence a partnership with NASA, its options are severely limited. With few resources, its space program cannot go it alone. Russia will need other partners. But which ones?

Most of the possible partners for an independent Russian space effort are more likely to align themselves with NASA and its commercial partners. NASA and companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have the resources to return to the moon and go on to Mars. European and most Asian countries are going to want in on that action and will not find the Artemis Accords irksome in the least.

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That leaves China, the only other country besides the United States with the means of mounting human voyages to the moon. However, if Beijing’s recent actions concerning the coronavirus pandemic prove anything, it is that it does not play well with others. Russia would be a decidedly junior partner in any Beijing-Moscow space axis.

Russia knows that the United States is a good space partner because it already has almost 30 years of experience with NASA helping to run the ISS. All things considered, if Russia wants to participate in humankind’s exploration and development of space, NASA is the only option available.

What Rogozin is really rejecting when he rejects the Artemis Accords is the rule of law beyond the domain of Earth. Instead of claiming that Russia will not accept “any attempts to privatize the Moon,” Russia should join in negotiations with the United States and other countries to ensure that the expansion of the human race into space will happen in peace and freedom. Russia could only benefit from sharing the opportunities for wealth and knowledge that are there for the taking on the moon, Mars and beyond.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.