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For sale: The Moon

For sale: The Moon
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It’s official: the Moon is open for business. Last week, NASA announced that seven countries had signed its so-called Artemis Accords, a series of bilateral agreements that allow national governments and private companies to extract and exploit space resources, including the Moon’s. Several more nations are “anxious” to sign the pact by year's end.

U.S. officials have heralded the Artemis Accords as the pathway to a sustainable, prosperous and peaceable future in outer space. Named for NASA’s manned lunar mission, the agreement echoes several provisions from international space treaties the United Nations has negotiated since the late 1960s. It requires signatories to help distressed astronauts, register space vehicles with the UN Secretary-General and openly share scientific data. The document’s apparent conformity with established rules has caused commentators to portray it as benign, or else ignore it completely.

This is a mistake.

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The Artemis Accords are not merely a code of conduct for foreign space agencies wishing to join NASA's moon program. They represent another prong in what has become a sustained American campaign to legislate international space law unilaterally. That NASA has begun to act as a diplomatic surrogate for the United Nations is a significant — and potentially harmful — milestone in the commercialization of outer space. 

One need only read the tea leaves. In 2015 Congress passed legislation empowering American citizens and companies to commercially explore and exploit space. Any citizen who recovers space resources, the act decrees, is entitled to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” those resources. Two years later, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE nominated for NASA's top post Jim Bridenstine, a vocal commercial space advocate and former politician whom Congress confirmed by a narrow, party-line vote. The new administrator has compared space resources to those in the open seas. “You do not own the ocean,” he said at a recent summit, “but you do own the tuna.”

Of late, the pace has only quickened. This April, the president issued an executive order sanctioning the recovery and use of space resources. It openly contradicts the 1979 Moon Treaty (the United States is not a signatory), which defines the Moon and its resources as the “common heritage of mankind” and therefore ineligible for extraction by any one nation, corporation or individual. A month later, NASA presented a draft of the Artemis Accords, which call upon signatories to establish “safety zones” that will reduce interference with their space activities. Merely five weeks ago, Bridenstine issued a challenge to U.S. and foreign companies to extract between 50 and 500 grams of lunar regolith, the unconsolidated debris that makes up the Moon's surface.

These declarations and plans are intended to create a “normalization process” around space resources, for there is little agreement on the matter at the international level. Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from claiming sovereignty over the Moon and other celestial bodies, but Bridenstine and other officials argue that taking ownership over minerals found on those bodies is perfectly legal. Others, including Germany, France and India, are not so sure.

It is odd to see NASA attempting to define proper behavior in space on its own. We already have an organization dedicated to doing just that: the UN's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS for short. Now more than 60 years old and boasting nearly 100 member nations, the COPUOS has been at the center of international space law since Sputnik. It has authored all five of the major space treaties that have emerged over the past half-century, including the Outer Space Treaty that serves as a model for the Artemis Accords themselves.

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Artemis-based law is also dangerous. Each independent step the United States takes toward commercializing the Moon’s resources is one taken away from important potential partners in space, as well as rivals worth keeping in the loop. These include dozens of nations in the developing world who consider lunar resources the common property of all people, and Russia and China, two massive spacefaring powers whose participation in international space law is indispensable to its legitimacy. It is with Russia and China, too, who American mining interests must reckon — whether or not these U.S. rivals join the Artemis fold. All indicators suggest they won't.

The authority to determine proper behavior in space should remain with the UN. NASA and other space agencies, in turn, should continue to do the behaving. Don't fix what ain't broke.

Stephen Buono is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.