The Artemis Accords

A 1967 treaty holds “that the moon and other celestial bodies are exempt from national claims of ownership,” according to an article on Aljazeera.com. That tidbit was included in an article about the Artemis Accords, an eight-nation international pact regarding moon exploration. The pact was signed in connection with the planned return of people to the moon and eventual moon-surface settlement and a space station in international orbit. The nations that signed the accord are: the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. Luxemborg? Interesting that a country with a population of less that 700,000 is part of the pact. I guess size does not matter, provided funding is available.

I have mixed feelings about space exploration. On the one hand, it is perhaps one of the most exciting, ambitious, and challenging opportunities ever presented to humankind. And, of course, many of the technological advances in the past fifty years have emerged from work done to advance humankind’s expeditions to understand the universe beyond the boundaries of Earth. I support and admire those facets of space exploration. But the expenditures of billions upon billions of dollars by governments around the world in pursuit of objectives that, in reality, are unknown or unclear, bothers me. When those monies could have been spent on urgent terrestrial issues like clean water, clean air, renewable energy, the elimination of poverty and hunger, dismantling political machinery designed primarily to wage war, etc., etc., etc., I think the amounts spent are an embarrassment to the inhabitants of this planet.

But, again, space exploration has give us GPS, artificial limbs, scratch-resistant lenses, LASIK surgery, wireless headsets, freeze-dried foods, CAT scans, LEDs, the computer mouse, and many, many more advantages of modern life. Would they have been invented in the absence of space exploration? Maybe. Would they have been available at this time in history with NASA and friends probing the universe? Probably not.

President Bush initiated the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2004, opting to end the program in 2010; the program actually retired in 2011. The decision was made, in part, due to the fact that the space vehicles were aging and becoming more and more difficult and expensive to maintain.  And discussions were taking place about replacing the Space Shuttle program with another space exploration venture, the Constellation Program. That program operated from 2005 to 2009, when President Obama cancelled it due to evidence that the costs associated with it would be dramatically higher than originally forecast. The Constellation Program’s objective of returning the U.S. to the moon by 2020 was thus abandoned.

We have to look back at the funds devoted to the “original” space program with an assessment of how those funds might otherwise have been spent, if not on space exploration. Would it have been used to eradicate poverty? Would it have been used to advance renewable energy? Would it have been used to put an end to war? Most emphatically—probably—not. So what is the point of contemplating a the history of actions not taken and money not spent? What is the point of hypothetical arguments that cannot be won because support for the arguments does not exist in the form of proof? I don’t know. Perhaps the point is that, going forward, it would make good sense to establish developmental priorities for humankind and, once established, evaluate the pros and cons of investments in light of the extent to which investments support or do not support priorities. And, if a lower-level priority is chosen for investment (not just money, but time, energy, human capital, etc.), powerful arguments would be required to deviate from established priorities.

It sounds so simple. It is not. That sort of thing is not simple even in a household, because decisions must be made on the basis of guesses about the likelihood of events. The decision to buy a house is based on assumptions about the ongoing availability f income sufficient to cover the mortgage or maintaining it in the future. The same is true for decisions about buying a car or a refrigerator. Assumptions about the availability of gasoline and electricity and such basics may seem simple and “given.” But hurricanes and tornadoes and novel coronaviruses can intervene to interrupt certainty.

My musings on the subject of space exploration have done nothing to cement my opinions. I’m still of two (or more) minds on the matter. On the one hand, I would gladly join a mission to the moon. On the other, I would complain bitterly that my money is being directed toward something frivolous, in comparison to ending hunger or war or pollution or assuring the future of a clean water supply.

This morning, I would be satisfied to have listened in on the conversations that led to the Artemis Accords. I wonder what is really included in the accords? I suppose I could find out if I searched hard enough. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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