The Artemis Accords: The Trump administration’s effort to bypass the Outer Space Treaty


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Capitalism in space: The Trump administration yesterday released the guidelines it will require any international or private partner to follow if they wish to participate in its Artemis lunar and planetary manned program.

The guidelines, which you can download here [pdf], list ten very broad and vague principles. Most reiterate support for the most successful requirements of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, such as:

  • the requirement that all activities be conducted for peaceful purposes
  • the requirement that everyone design equipment for interoperability and to international standards
  • the requirement that everyone take reasonable steps possible to render assistance to astronauts in distress
  • the requirement that everyone publicly register anything they launch
  • the requirement that everyone release their scientific data publicly
  • the requirement that all parties take actions to mitigate space junk

The remaining four principles appear designed to bend the Outer Space Treaty in the direction of allowing countries and companies to have some control over the territories they occupy in space.

First, there is the demand that all partners respect the location and operations of any nation or company, and agree to delineate these into ‘Safety Zones’, which all other partners will then honor. In a sense, this is the Trump administration’s attempt to bypass the Outer Space Treaty’s second article, which outlaws the claiming of any territory in space. “We aren’t claiming anything, but if we establish a base we expect others to honor the territory we occupy.”

Second the accords reiterate in a very vague way the right of future nations and companies to own the resources they extract and utilize, though here the accords seem to back away from the early April Trump administration executive order, stating that any resources mined by U.S. citizens would be considered their private property. Instead, this new principle will be based on articles 2, 6, and 11 of the Outer Space Treaty, suggesting that U.S. law will not apply, and that private ownership of those resources will remain ill-defined.

Third, the accords demand that all partners commit to protecting the historic sites on other worlds, such as the Apollo landing sites.

Finally, the accords expect all partners to publicly outline in detail their own space policies and plans in a transparent manner. This principle, while appearing to align with the general sense of the Outer Space Treaty, puts far more pressure than required by the treaty on authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, who are not transparent and try to keep as much of what they plan to do and eventually accomplish as secret as possible.

Overall these accords appear at first glance to be somewhat disappointing, especially the principle on resource extraction. It seems the Trump administration with its April executive order had been trying, as have every past administration and numerous treaty signatories, to find a way around the treaty’s restriction against claiming sovereignty and establishing our laws on any territory in space. They have apparently discovered, as have every past administration and numerous treaty signatories, that they can’t get around it.

A closer look however suggests that the Trump administration is attempting a very subtle end-around of these restrictions. First, they are advocating that the territory of any established base be declared a “safety zone”, which is just a different way of saying the base-operator will own it. Second, they reiterate that resource extraction will in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty clauses that require each nation to regulate the actions of its citizens in space (Article 6). Under this article, the U.S. can now tell its citizens you will, according to our laws, own what you mine.

The result? U.S. citizens and companies will know that U.S. law will apply to their efforts in space, which will likely make it easier for them to obtain investment capital and later make real profits by what they achieve.

I am not sure this end-around will work, but I give the Trump administration kudos for trying it. They are definitely putting pressure on other nations with their demand that safety zones be respected. This requirement is really plain common sense, but by bluntly declaring it the administration is forcing other nations to face its reality.

If it does work I expect space exploration will be begin to blossom, as the administration is laying the legal groundwork for protecting private investment.

If it doesn’t work, we will either have to accept the fact that private property law will not apply in space and that Americans in space will be second-class citizens with none of the rights and legal protections that Americans expect, or we will have to get out of the Outer Space Treaty or force a major revision.

I have been advocating the latter for years. Few in our generally incompetent governing class has been willing to face that reality.

The Trump administration at least appears to be making an effort to deal with it.

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4 comments

  • LocalFluff

    Thanks for the overview.
    This will likely be discussed by Michael Listner on today’s Space Show.
    https://www.thespaceshow.com/

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Third, the accords demand that all partners commit to protecting the historic sites on other worlds, such as the Apollo landing sites.

    Early manned landing sites are clearly historic, such as Apollo’s sites, but what about various unmanned landers? Apollo 12 has already disturbed the Surveyor 3 landing site and spacecraft. What others are fair game for disturbance?

    What about future manned sites, such as a temporary early base or station? If the next manned base is intended to last only a few years, with multiple visits over that time, could it be cannibalized for materials when it is decommissioned, or must it be left intact as a historic site?

    If it does work I expect space exploration will be begin to blossom, as the administration is laying the legal groundwork for protecting private investment.

    If it doesn’t work, we will either have to accept the fact that private property law will not apply in space and that Americans in space will be second-class citizens with none of the rights and legal protections that Americans expect, or we will have to get out of the Outer Space Treaty or force a major revision.

    Until private property was established, most improvements and advancements were military in nature, and they came slowly. The concepts of private property and intellectual property are why civilization has so rapidly improved over the past few centuries. These rights expanded the incentive to “make a better mousetrap” to virtually everyone, not just governments that didn’t need a mousetrap.

    Profit is the reward for finding efficiencies. It transfers the incentive to improve from the few governments of the world to the many people of the world. This is why SpaceX is so successful but NASA keeps delaying its return to manned launches. Governments tax, so they have very little incentive to become more efficient, and their space programs have a similar lack of incentive.

    One thing that I find troubling is the requirement to share scientific data. A company doing its own research in space would be at a disadvantage if it does expensive research in space only to have to give away the data to its competitors. NASA requires that data collected on experiments performed on the ISS be made public domain within five years. A patent gives a company seventeen years to benefit from its efforts and expense, but a company’s space research doesn’t get a third that time.

    It makes sense that NASA wants the data published, because the ISS is a national lab, and the tremendous cost of building and running that lab means that each experiment performed on ISS is subsidized by over ten million tax dollars. However, if a company does research in a private laboratory in space, shouldn’t it be allowed to keep its results to itself? The incentive to perform experiments and make improved or new goods or services would be just as tremendous as it is on Earth.

    Article I of the Outer Space Treaty reads like socialist doctrine: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. In socialist countries it works out about as well as many school projects, one student does most of the work, but everyone gets the grade the hard worker earned. Even the hard working student who needs a good grade gets discouraged. No wonder so little of the world’s productivity is used to explore the bounty of space. One country spends the most money on it, but everyone benefits from that country’s effort without much contribution to the effort.

    America saw this before. The Plymouth Colony was based upon the idea that everyone would work as hard as they could and after seven years they would all share equally what they had created. Those who worked hard complained about those who hardly worked, became discouraged, and in the first year half the colony died. Then they tried free market capitalism and property rights, where everyone owned what he created, and the colony prospered.

    When the United Nations created the Outer Space Treaty, they were too stupid to learn the lesson of Plymouth Colony.

  • Ian C.

    Most excellent. It’s going in the right direction.

    Edward,

    What others are fair game for disturbance?

    Not all are equally worthy. When I worked for a Google Lunar XPRIZE team, it coordinated with NASA the Lunar Heritage Guidelines. There were several documents, this should give you an idea:

    https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/617743main_NASA-USG_LUNAR_HISTORIC_SITES_RevA-508.pdf

    Guess “historic sites” that come later and/or from other parties need to register their demands somewhere, so that others know about it. Legally all the stuff there is owned by someone (see Registration Convention) and if you damage it, they can sue you (and if your stuff gets damaged by theirs, you can sue them). If I remember it correctly, if we’d have damaged one of the lunar rovers, the Smithsonian Institute (owner of the Lunar Roving Vehicles) would sue the team. The US Government considered to declare landing sites as national parks, in that case it could sue the team’s home country for violating property of the United States. Something like that.

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/legislators-want-to-put-a-national-park-on-the-moon-9700021/

    Then there is (or rather was) this organization that attempted to preserve (past and future) historic sites:

    https://www.forallmoonkind.org/

    (The name alone is tacky, which disqualifies it for being taken serious.)

    When the United Nations created the Outer Space Treaty, they were too stupid to learn the lesson of Plymouth Colony.

    I think I’ve heard years ago from the CEO of (defunct) Excalibur Almaz that the Americans feared the Soviets would put weapons up there and that the Soviets feared the Americans would commercialize space and both concerns were put into the OST. So no militarization and no property rights.

  • Edward

    Ian C.,

    Thank you for the document. It looks interesting, and I will read it tonight. I, too, think that footprints and roverprints are important historical artifacts.

    On reading The Martian, I thought it interesting that Watney disturbed a potentially historic probe and rover landing site, but ultimately he turned that hardware into even more important historical hardware.

    So no militarization and no property rights.

    As I said, too stupid to learn from Plymouth Colony.

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