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12 May 2020, Gateway House

Artemis Accords propel India’s space ambitions

Under the ‘Artemis Accords’ the U.S. is planning an international coalition to extract natural resources from the Moon. China is concurrently planning an Earth-Moon Special Economic Zone. India’s antiquated endorsement of the 1979 Moon Agreement is shackling its true potential for economics-driven space exploration. India must immediately do away with Cold-War era, vintage whims of global commons.

Former Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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On 6th April 2020, the White House announced a presidential “Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources”[1]. The order pledges to continue nurturing the U.S.’ private sector towards developing an “innovative and sustainable program” that will “lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations”. The order refers to the important Space Policy Directive-1 of 2017[2].

The order states that the U.S. Secretary of State will object to any international organization or nation opposing U.S.’ cis-lunar (the space between Earth and Moon) plans, directly or indirectly, by invoking the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (also known as the Moon Agreement) as a customary legal instrument. It also says the U.S. will proactively negotiate bilateral and multilateral arrangements with foreign countries for “safe and sustainable operations for public and private recovery of outer space”. This last part of the order is now being detailed as the U.S.-led, international Artemis Accord[3].

This is of immediate importance to India that has space ambitions but has been unable to leverage them with an appropriate, updated, global positioning. The U.S.’s confidence in its human spaceflight, space resource utilization, and space exploration capabilities is higher than ever before. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the U.S. lost a human-rated, space-proven, heavy-lift, launch vehicle for an entire decade. It was forced to rely on Russian launchers especially for logistics and astronaut transport to the International Space Station. But the U.S. has recovered and has several heavy-lift launch vehicles in various stages of development and preparedness. The NASA Space Launch System[4], the SpaceX’ Falcon Heavy[5], Blue Origin’ New Glenn[6] and the United Launch Alliance’ (Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s joint venture) Vulcan launch vehicles[7] are a strong force of heavy-lift launch vehicle contingencies. Not restricting the private sector from the space industry, the U.S. has meticulously nurtured private sector companies to build spacecrafts, space stations, payloads, and components, and operate them as space contractors to the government with a business-to-business model.

The Artemis Accord and the U.S.’ disregard for the Moon Agreement has incited strong reactions from China, given their continuing geopolitical contentions. China has dismissed the Artemis Accord as dated, and as the space version of the ‘Enclosure Movement of the Middle Ages’[8], but does not admit its own ambitious plans for presence on the Moon. The day news of the Artemis Accord[9] became public, China tested the Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle (FICRV) aboard its new heavy-lift launcher the Long March 4B[10]. The FICRV is a deep-space capsule, purpose-built for carrying Chinese taikonauts to the Moon[11], and is an important constituent of China’s plans for an Earth-Moon Special Economic Zone.

Beijing plans to establish this cis-lunar economic zone by the year 2050, and once operational, China expects the zone to generate an astonishing $10 trillion dollars through space-based services and manufacturing, and extraction of extra-terrestrial natural resources. Beijing has entrusted its state-owned aeronautics company – the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation[12] – with the job of leading the construction of this zone.

China, like the U.S., never committed to the 1979 Moon Agreement as it clearly had plans for economic gains from lunar exploration. The U.S. and China have end-to-end space capabilities and strong economies to sustain space exploration and human spaceflight. Through the Artemis Accord and the Earth-Moon Special Economic Zone, they want to lead a cohort of politically-aligned partners into outer space and entrench them in their plans for precise economic and strategic gains, out of space exploration and human spaceflight.

Both countries are therefore nurturing domestic private and public companies, as well as co-opting overseas space-technology enterprises, to further enable their governmental space agencies to realize their national ambitions.

Given these developments, it is time for India to immediately announce its withdrawal from the redundant Moon Agreement that it had signed in 1982[13]. India must not remain signatory to a treaty that most space-faring countries discredit with impunity.

India had hastily signed the Moon Agreement largely because of its then fascination with the concept of a ‘common heritage of humankind’[14] but its space policymakers have always refrained from its ratification or accession. Since the beginning of the country’s space exploration programme in 1999, Indian space policymakers have planned for the utilization of lunar resources and long-duration human presence in outer space and on the Moon. With successful missions, Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Chandrayaan-2 (2019) behind it, India is now preparing to land on the South Pole of the Moon with its Chandrayaan-3 mission, scheduled for 2021[15]. Simultaneously, India is also scheduled to undertake its maiden orbital human spaceflight test – Gaganyaan – by 2022[16] and has plans for an Earth-orbiting space station by 2030[17].

The failed Moon Agreement was signed by only four countries and just 18 countries have decided to go a step further and have acceded and ratified it[18]. Of these four signatories, only India and France have developed planetary exploration and human spaceflight competencies, after signing the treaty. France has already shown its support for the U.S.’s Artemis programme[19] and so have Japan, Australia and Canada.

Given the fast pace of developments in the space exploration industry and India’s large stakes in it, the Department of Space needs to act swiftly and must do the following:

a) Articulate that it adheres to the Outer Space Treaty and patronizes internationally-recognized, best practices and codes of conduct in outer space but is withdrawing from the failed Moon Agreement.

b) Resolve that its lunar and planetary exploration, and human spaceflight plans will be contemporaneous with the international space exploration industry’s trends and aspirations.

c) Pledge unprecedented and unequivocal support to public and private sector industries including start-ups, thus unleashing their potential to engage and prosper in the space exploration industry.

d) Envision economically pragmatic and technologically-practicable, lunar and planetary exploration goals that are driven by synergies between space agency and industry for the next two decades.

India has maintained productive space partnerships with Europe, Russia, Japan and the U.S. It’s adherence to strategic autonomy as a national doctrine, even on the space front, has given it a privileged manoeuvrability across geopolitical blocs. Being the third largest economy in the making, India need not conceptually side with any of the space groupings but make pragmatic collaborations. For India to be an active leader rather than a bystander watching other countries venture into deep space and achieve successes, it must now, urgently, open space exploration to its private sector instead of limiting it to a few, however great, laboratories of the Indian Space Research Organization.

Table: Parties to the 1979 Moon Agreement. Of 22 countries, only India and France have space-launch, lunar and planetary exploration, and human spaceflight competencies[20].

Country Deposit Status Year Deposited Year Signed
Armenia Accession 2018
Australia Accession 1986
Austria Ratified 1984
Belgium Accession 2004
Chile Ratified 1981
France* Signed 1980
Guatemala Signed 1980
India* Signed 1982
Kazakhstan Accession 2001
Kuwait Accession 2014
Lebanon Accession 2006
Mexico Accession 1991
Morocco Ratified 1993
Netherlands Ratified 1983
Pakistan Accession 1986
Peru Ratified 2005
Philippines Ratified 1981
Romania Signed 1980
Saudi Arabia Accession 2012
Turkey Accession 2012
Uruguay Ratified 1981
Venezuela Accession 2016

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

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[1] The White House. Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources. 6 April 2020.

[2] J.R. Wang. New Space Policy Directive Calls for Human Expansion Across Solar System. Retrieved from the NASA website. 12 December 2017.

[3] J. Roulette. Exclusive: Trump administration drafting ‘Artemis Accords’ pact for moon mining – sources. Reuters. 6 May 2020.

[4] Retrieved from the NASA-Space Launch System website,

[5] Retrieved from the SpaceX-Falcon Heavy website,

[6] Retrieved from the Blue Origin-New Glenn website,

[7] Retrieved from the United Launch Alliance-Vulcan-Centaur website,

[8] D. Xiaoci. Trump administration’s ‘Artemis Accords’ expose political agenda of moon colonization, show Cold War mentality against space rivals: observers. Global Times. 7 May 2020.

[9] J. Roulette. Exclusive: Trump administration drafting ‘Artemis Accords’ pact for moon mining – sources. Reuters. 6 May 2020.

[10] Z. Lei. Experimental spacecraft malfunctions on return. China Daily. 6 May 2020.

[11] Z. Lei. Experimental spacecraft malfunctions on return. China Daily. 6 May 2020.

[12] China Briefing. China proposes establishing Moon-based Special Economic Zone. Dezan Shira & Associates. 8 November 2019.

[13] Retrieved from the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs – Treaties Database website

[14] United Nations. Report of the Second United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Vienna, 9-12 August 1982.

[15] Department of Space – Press Information Bureau – Government of India. The process of Astronaut selection for the Gaganyaan mission is completed: ISRO Chairman. Chandrayaan-3 mission to the moon, comprising a lander and a rover is approved by the Government. 1 January 2020.

[16] Department of Space – Press Information Bureau – Government of India. First Manned Mission. 4 December 2019.

[17] Department of Space – Press Information Bureau – Government of India. Space station and Manned Space Mission. 10 July 2019.

[18] Retrieved from the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs – Treaties Database website

[19] S. Potter. NASA gains broad international support from Artemis program at IAC. Retrieved from the NASA website. 12 November 2019.

[20] Retrieved from the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs – Treaties Database website

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