Don’t Despoil Outer Space. That’s Our Job.

NASA recently announced the Artemis Accords, which are “a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space.” It’s the silliness of purpose marketing writ on the heavens.

Artemis is the name of the NASA program that plans to start putting people back on the moon by 2024, where they’ll do more science stuff but also be tasked with finding ways to monetize it, like mining, as well as establishing a permanent presence that may have geopolitical or even military implications someday.

So named a presumed international accord after the name of one country’s efforts is somewhat shortsighted. The last big deal signed by more than one country was the appropriately generically-labeled Outer Space Treaty in 1967 (it was a motivating factor to the US abandoning trips to the Moon only a few years later, as it prohibited the mining and militarization that would have made such a continuing effort worthwhile).

And there’s the sleight of spin: The Artemis Accords aren’t intended to serve as an agreement between countries, but rather a list of aspirational behaviors for NASA partners and suppliers, whether commercial or governmental.

It’s not a binding addendum to the Outer Space Treaty — it’s “grounded” in it, which means it picks and chooses what it even recognizes — and its focus seems to be to promote and protect execution of the US’s Artemis program. Lots of references to “a new era for space exploration,” “international cooperation,” and “transparency” followed by sneaky inclusion of a reference to “the ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids” qualify it as little more than a cover story.

So much for a grand space treaty.

Purpose statements and other documents intended to elevate the mercenary activities of businesses into some redeeming social impact are all the rage these days, because marketing research has discovered that consumers care about the world around them. This brilliant insight, in theory, is supposed to change how companies operate; in practice, it yields lofty statements of intent and other PR tools intended to dress up old activities as new ones.

The purpose of business has always been to make a profit providing something that people value, and do it without killing them or the planet in the process (which would be bad for business). How companies make good on that purpose changes over time, as consumer tastes and enabling technologies change, but the what doesn’t. Same goes for the institutions of government, at least in democracies. Do good and, if that’s not possible, avoid doing harm. Above all, disclose everything.

NASA had a choice: It could have decided to institute a set of steadfast rules of conduct, put in place ways to enforce them that included significant penalties for failure (imposed on violators even if it impeded NASA’s operations), established third-party tools for governing its implementation (i.e. governance), and put in another layer above that of independent directors who’d assess and report on its activities.

The only signature it needed on those Accords would have been its own.

Instead, it gave the world a set of highfalutin ideals that are less precedent than wiggle room, effectively announcing that it wants the rest of the planet to live up to something while it goes about its business. Its marketing consultants should be ashamed of themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *