NASA pact protects space resources

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: exploring outer space.

On Tuesday, a U.S. spacecraft gathered samples from the asteroid Bennu. It’ll deliver them back home in 2023. Bennu, like many asteroids, contains natural resources that could be mined to fuel deep-space exploration.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Mining space resources could eventually become common practice. But earthly laws aren’t adequate to regulate such an otherworldly enterprise. NASA hopes an agreement signed last week will provide a new foundation for exploring, working, and even living in outer space.

WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett has our report.

BRIDENSTINE: What we’re all seeking is the peaceful uses of outer space, the peaceful process of getting to the moon and then enshrine these principles in a document that we all agree to…

REPORTER, BONNIE PRITCHETT: That’s NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine talking to reporters last week after he and the leaders of seven national space agencies signed the Artemis Accords. The brief document lists 13 principles guiding NASA’s mission to the moon, Mars, and beyond. It’s known as the Artemis program.

Nations wanting to collaborate in that endeavor must sign the accords.


NASA drafted the agreement with input from nations eager to join the mission. They are Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. The virtual signing ceremony took place October 13th during the annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress.

Noticeably missing from the signatories? Russia and China.

A 2011 amendment authored by then-Representative Frank Wolf prohibits bilateral collaboration between NASA and China or Chinese-owned companies. So Beijing isn’t allowed to participate.

VLAD POVLOV, REPORTER: So, as you remember, the head of Russia’s Space Agency Dmitry Rogozin said…

And Moscow might not be able to afford to, at least for now. 

Michelle Hanlon co-directs the University of Mississippi Center for Air and Space Law.

She believes Russia will eventually sign the accords because of its decades-long cooperative efforts with the United States in outer space.

Since 1967, five treaties drafted by the United Nations have regulated human space activity. The first, commonly called the Outer Space Treaty, is the foundation for the Artemis Accords. Hanlon explains.

HANLON: It didn’t have rules as much as principles and guidelines. And among those principles and guidelines it was pretty vague. Space will be used for peaceful purposes. We won’t militarize space…

Though not a treaty, the new accords address principles of extra-terrestrial cooperation, including the peaceful exploration of space, the interoperability of space-based infrastructures, shared scientific data, and the establishment of safety zones to avoid harmful interference between nations.

Hanlon said the accords also clarify a point of disagreement in the 1967 treaty.

HANLON: Article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty says ‘No sovereign state may appropriate territory in space. Period. Nobody argues with that provision. What it doesn’t say is what happens if you want to use the resources of space…

Bridenstine gave a down-to-Earth explanation.

BRIDENSTINE: We also think it’s important to make sure that when other countries go to the moon and other celestial bodies, they’re able to extract resources. We want to be clear. Under the Artemis Accords there is nobody interested in appropriating the moon or other celestial bodies for national sovereignty. You can extract resources from the ocean but it doesn’t mean that you own the ocean…

Research indicates there could be enough water ice at the moon’s south pole to provide water and oxygen for long-term human habitation on the lunar surface. It could also provide hydrogen for fuel.

And once those international colonies are established on the moon—and Mars—they’ll need lawyers.

HANLON: The world needs space lawyers. I know people kind of giggle at that. But it really does. Right now, you don’t lose your nationality when you go to space. The way station does it is, in each module, whoever created that module, those laws apply. So, if you cross over into the Russian module, you are abiding by Russian law. So it will have to be hashed out by treaty how they’re going to do it…

Hanlon said laws governing a fledgling international community on the moon will probably model the laws of the International Space Station—initially. But that other-world community will eventually outgrow an agreement like the Artemis Accords.

HANLON: One of the really interesting questions we face, that I put to my students in my space law class is ‘What about crime?’ At what point does that community on the moon become its own sovereign?

And hammering out detailed laws world leaders can agree on, will likely be an out-of-this world challenge.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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