By Kwame Newton –  After decades of policy formulation, NASA has made significant strides in establishing responsible, global norms for the next generation of space exploration through international cooperation. The agency and its partners have built momentum from the formation of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) in 2007, to the adoption of the Hague Building Blocks for the Development of an International Framework on Space Resource Activities in 2019, culminating in the signing of the Artemis Accords in 2020

These three frameworks all recognize the principles of peaceful exploration and international cooperation established by the Outer Space Treaty (OST), while introducing newer norms of interoperability, transparency, and responsible use of space resources–all of which, are driven by the input, assent, and experience of the international community, will support the OST’s bedrock basis.

The Preservation & Strengthening of International Norms for the Advancement of All Moonkind

Since its signing in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has remained the most authoritative set of international norms for the space environment. Key sections for ensuring peaceful lunar exploration efforts are Article II, which prohibits claims of national sovereignty on the Moon and other celestial bodies, and Articles V & VIII, which require the registration of space objects and launches to the United Nations. ISECG’s framework for exploration, the Hague Building Blocks, and the Artemis Accords reaffirm these commitments, while applying technical and diplomatic lessons learned in the decades since Apollo.

The ISECG Framework seeks to enhance mutual understanding among partners and identify potential areas for cooperation, while the Hague Building Blocks promote compliance with existing international law in upcoming space resource missions carried out by States or the private organizations licensed under them. 

Artemis Accords signatories have committed to uncouple rights to extract space resources from rights of national ownership, as well as taking on the duty to inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the public, and the international scientific community about their space resource extraction activities in section 10.

Interoperability: A Shared Principle for Safer, Cooperative Lunar Exploration

Interoperability is a critical technical requirement for modern space exploration architectures, but it is relatively new as a legal principle. Interoperability appears nowhere in the OST, but is held up by ISECG as a common language of exploration design that lowers risk, helps assure crew safety during emergencies, and enables integrated, multi-agency exploration architectures. In this sense it promotes international cooperation as envisioned in Article X of the OST. 

NASA began to pursue this principle of inclusivity in earnest through its Global Exploration Strategy, announced in 2006, and its open invitation for space agencies to participate in the Artemis Program, the latest signatories being Rwanda and Nigeria. Signatories have also pledged to communicate & release scientific data from government missions to the public in Section 8

IAC Lunar Surface Concept of Operations for the Global Exploration Roadmap Lunar Surface Exploration Scenario Global Exploration Roadmap Supplement, October 2022, p. 15

NASA and its partners have crystallized their commitment to this principle via Section 5 of the Artemis Accords, which mirrors ISECG’s framework in recognizing the development of interoperable and common exploration infrastructure as an enabler of cooperative crewed and robotic exploration efforts. Artemis signatories have also pledged to communicate and release scientific data from government missions to the public in Section 8 of the Accords, fulfilling Article XI’s call for nations to share the results of exploration activities with the public and international scientific community.

The Makings of a Sustainable and Inclusive Exploration Framework

By setting norms in line with the OST’s principles to the extraction of space resources, each of the above frameworks helps fill a key regulatory gap–one that Artemis signatories, the UAE, Japan, Luxembourg, and the USA have now sought to address via domestic commercial space resource extraction laws

  • The ISECG Framework originally sought to identify practical features such as communications, control, life support, and docking systems that could be made to work together…
  • … And the global exploration community’s insights gave rise to the Hague Building Blocks, which promote the harmonization of national laws to create an integrated international framework for space resource rights
  • The Artemis Accords take the global exploration community’s goals to the next level, bolstering the standing of international norms by providing them with structure. By committing to use their lunar exploration experience to help develop international practices for space resource extraction utilization, signatories can help ensure their safe and sustainable utilization. 

In these ways, NASA’s Global Exploration effort has preserved the Outer Space Treaty’s necessary foundation, while equipping the global community with modern standards that will streamline and safeguard international cooperation. This roadmap, defined by the ISECG’s Framework, the Hague Building Blocks, and the Artemis Accords, have the potential to guide all nations toward an era of peaceful, cooperative space exploration–so long as they continue to take root in international and domestic law.

By Kwame Newton: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of For All Moonkind’s Institute on Space Law and Ethics.

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