It looks like Russia is thumbing its nose at international cooperation on the Moon. They’ve refused to sign the Artemis Accords, which are a set of rules governing Lunar exploration. NASA and seven other countries have signed on already, with more to come.
Russia is NASA’s largest partner in space exploration. The two countries are largely responsible for the International Space Station, and American astronauts have been travelling back and forth to the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. But Russia doesn’t seem to be happy with the Artemis Accords, saying they’re too US-centric.
The Artemis Accords idea surfaced last May when the US drafted a framework for rules regarding activities on the Moon. They called them the Artemis Accords, after their current effort to return astronauts to the Moon, called Artemis. NASA’s Artemis program will involve other nations as partners. With that in mind, and with all of the commercial partners getting involved, and with the general enthusiasm towards lunar exploration, NASA decided it was time for one set of rules regarding operations on the Moon.
“Artemis will be the broadest and most diverse international human space exploration program in history, and the Artemis Accords are the vehicle that will establish this singular global coalition,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press release. “With today’s signing, we are uniting with our partners to explore the Moon and are establishing vital principles that will create a safe, peaceful, and prosperous future in space for all of humanity to enjoy.”
So far, eight countries have signed on. They are:
This is only the first round, so to speak, and others are expected to sign on in the future. NASA is hoping that the Accords will generate cooperation among lunar-interested nations, and that the agreement will help generate peaceful—and prosperous—lunar exploration.
“This first announcement is very much a beginning, not an ending to the nations joining the Accords,” said Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the office of international and interagency relations, in a briefing.
The Artemis Accords contain 10 overarching principles that will guide:
NASA is hopeful that cooperation on the Artemis Accords will guide and strengthen space exploration and lead to more peaceful relations between signing nations.
“Fundamentally, the Artemis Accords will help to avoid conflict in space and on Earth by strengthening mutual understanding and reducing misperceptions. Transparency, public registration, de-conflicting operations – these are the principles that will preserve peace,” said Mike Gold, NASA acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations. “The Artemis journey is to the Moon, but the destination of the Accords is a peaceful and prosperous future.”
“When we think about the Artemis Accords, what we’re trying to do is establish norms of behavior that every nation can agree to,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
But one important nation is missing from the list of countries: Russia.
Russia’s long history of space exploration is full of achievements and firsts. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to journey into space by completing one orbit of Earth in 1961. Russia (USSR) was also the first nation to send a spacecraft to see the Moon’s far side, with the Luna 3 probe in 1959. They landed the first spacecraft on Venus and were the first nation to send back pictures of Venus’s surface. That also made them the first nation to land a spacecraft on another planet.
Dmitry Rogozin is the head of Russia’s space program. He voiced his displeasure for the Artemis Accords when they were first mentioned back in May. And during a recent panel at the International Astronautical Congress, he spurned the Accords as too “US-centric.” He also criticized the Artemis Accords for being too political and for straying too far from the framework used to cooperate on the ISS.
“The most important thing here would be to base this program on the principles of international cooperation that we’ve all used” regarding the ISS, Rogozin said through a translator during a virtual press conference at the International Astronautical Congress. Rogozin also said that “If we could get back to considering making these principles as the foundation of the program, then Roscosmos could also consider its participation.”
Some of the Russian criticism is aimed at American leadership of the entire Artemis endeavor. Though NASA has several Artemis partners—including Canada, who will use their robotics expertise to build the Canadarm 3 for the mission—the US is clearly in the driver’s seat. That’s not sitting well with Russia.
Earlier in the summer, Rogozin criticized the entire Artemis mission, not just the Accords, as too political. “For the United States, this is now more of a political project,” Rogozin told a Russian tabloid in July. “With the lunar project, we are observing the departure of our American partners from the principles of cooperation and mutual support that developed during cooperation on the ISS. They see their program not as international, but similar to NATO. There is America, everyone else must help and pay. To be honest, we are not interested in participating in such a project.”
Along with all of the cooperation between the US and Russia, there are undercurrents of outright hostility. Nuclear arms deals are contentious, accusations of election meddling taint the relationship, and sanctions over Russia’s occupation/invasion of the Crimea are inhibiting Russia’s economic growth. And of course, there was the Cold War and the Space Race. The two nations have had a rancorous relationship that dates back at least as far as the Second World War when Stalin complained that Russia was paying a high price in lives, while the Allies dithered over an invasion of Hitler’s Europe. So the table is set for both cooperation and antagonism.
Perhaps Russia fears being strong-armed by the US and the other signing nations. NASA Administrator Bridenstine said that nations could be asked to leave if they don’t abide by the rules. “Look, you’re in this program with the rest of us, but you’re not playing by the same rules,” Bridenstine said.
Another prominent space-faring nation is also absent from the list of nations signing the Artemis Accords: China.
But there’s a clear reason for China not signing. They’ve not been asked.
Congress passed a law in 2011 prohibiting NASA from cooperating, partnering, or even engaging with China. There were concerns among some members of Congress that the Chinese space program was too militaristic. In spite of that, NASA and China found a way to cooperate a little with China’s 2019 Chang’e 4 lunar mission. NASA monitored China’s lander and rover with its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Seldom does an international agreement gain favor with everyone at once. Russia clearly has concerns about the Artemis Accords and the Artemis Program. But whether they’ll continue to refuse to participate or whether this is the beginning of a long, protracted negotiation remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine a future where Russia won’t engage with the rest of the world when it comes to lunar exploration. The benefits could be substantial and impossible to ignore.
But with China out, and with others yet to sign, the situation remains fluid. What the final list of signing nations will look like is unclear at this point. Russia may yet sign the Accords, and they may be using their participation and contribution as a bargaining chip in other matters, or to get the terms of the Accord changed.
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