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NASA-Canadian agreement demonstrates how Artemis is an international moonshot

NASA-Canadian agreement demonstrates how Artemis is an international moonshot
© Getty Images

Space Policy Online reports that NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have concluded an agreement that, among other things, would include a Canadian astronaut on the Artemis II mission, envisioned to take four astronauts around the moon in 2023. The Artemis II would precede the Artemis III mission to land on the moon the following year, even though most believe that date to be unrealistic.

Other parts of the agreement concerned the development and installation of a Canadian-built robotic arm on the Lunar Gateway, the planned lunar orbital transfer station. A second Canadian astronaut will go on a mission to the Lunar Gateway.

The yet to be identified Canadian astronaut will be the first non-American to venture beyond low Earth orbit. The inclusion illustrates that Artemis is not your grandfather’s lunar exploration program. The international aspects of the 21st century moonshot have a long-standing precedent. As far back as 1984, when President Ronald Reagan announced the project that eventually became the International Space Station, Canada, Japan and the countries of western Europe were included as partners. Later, President Bill Clinton brought in Russia as a partner for the space station.

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The Apollo race to the moon was conducted to prove America’s technological superiority to the Soviet Union. The program succeeded brilliantly in this goal. The Soviets never recovered from the humiliation.

The Artemis program has a similar but subtler political purpose. By returning astronauts to the moon and asking for international participation in the undertaking, the United States seeks to establish itself as a world leader in space exploration. America also expects to garner a great deal of international good will by inviting other countries to participate in Artemis, which will include their nationals walking on the moon alongside Americans.

Artemis will demonstrate to China, which also has lunar ambitions, that the country that landed men on the moon 50 years ago still has what it takes to do the same thing now. Now as then, the United States is the world leader for space exploration. China, because of its implacable hostility to the United States and the rest of the western world, is in no way a candidate for a space exploration partnership.

The third purpose of the Artemis international partnerships is to keep the incoming Biden administration from cancelling the project. By lining up international partners for Artemis, the Trump administration hopes to make a Biden cancellation of the project impossible. Team Biden has made a big issue of Trump’s withdrawal from international agreements, such as the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran Nuclear Agreement. It wouldn’t be a good look, given that rhetoric, if the future Biden were to break the agreements, including the Artemis Accords, which seek to define what constitutes good behavior in space.

Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineBill Nelson is a born-again supporter of commercial space at NASA Has the Biden administration abandoned the idea of a moon base? Bill Nelson's nomination as NASA administrator is replete with irony MORE, the outgoing NASA administrator, has proven his worth by negotiating the various Artemis agreements. His latest feat, besides the Canadian agreement, has been to persuade Brazil to join the growing list of countries that have become part of the Artemis Accords.

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Ironically, Senate Commerce Committee Democrats slammed Bridenstine during his confirmation hearings, claiming that rather than a politician (he was a congressman at the time), NASA needed an “aerospace professional” as a leader. Bridenstine won confirmation anyway. He since used his political skills to not only win bipartisan congressional approval for Artemis, but international support as well. 

Bridenstine has pledged to step down as NASA administrator once Biden is sworn in as president of the United States. The decision constitutes a tragedy because the former congressman and Naval aviator has done so well in charge of the space agency, even winning over his former critics. Whoever Team Biden chooses to replace Bridenstine, he or she should be someone with the skill set and passion to bring Artemis home Kathy Lueders, the current head of NASA’s human space flight effort, which includes Artemis and the commercial crew program, comes to mind.

As for Bridenstine, maybe he could be offered the position of Special Envoy for Space Exploration, so that he might continue his diplomatic work building the Artemis Alliance to return to the moon.

Many astronauts from other countries will follow that first Canadian into deep space. They will hail from Europe, Asia and likely even the Middle East. America went to the moon alone, before the eyes of the world, 50 years ago. This time she will lead the world back to the lunar surface and thus earn much international influence and credibility.

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.