S. Neil Hosenball, Former NASA General Counsel and Moon Treaty Negotiator

S. Neil Hosenball, Former NASA General Counsel and Moon Treaty Negotiator

S. Neil Hosenball, who served as NASA’s General Counsel from 1975-1985, passed away on December 23. His obituary appears in today’s Washington Post. He succumbed to cancer.

Editor’s Note: Among his many legacies, Neil Hosenball was instrumental in negotiating what is commonly known as the 1979 “Moon Treaty” through the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) — formally the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Although U.S. policy on certain language in the treaty changed and the United States ultimately decided not to sign the treaty, Neil’s indefatigable pursuit of the agreement was testament to his skills as a space lawyer and negotiator.

The Moon Treaty was negotiated at the same time as the Law of Sea Treaty. The two were philosophically and politically joined in the sense that both invoked the principle of “common heritage of mankind.” At that time, some argued that natural resources in the deep sea bed and on the Moon were the common heritage of mankind and economic benefits deriving from them should be shared equitably among all nations. Although the United States initially was a strong supporter of the common heritage language — against the objections of the Soviet Union, among others — and successfully fought for consensus to include it, by the time the Moon Treaty reached Washington, forces were aligned against that principle and the United States did not sign it. The Law of the Sea Treaty met the same fate. The Moon Treaty entered into force in 1984 after the requisite five countries signed and ratified it (a total of 13 have done so now), but none of the major spacefaring countries is among them. (France and India signed but did not ratify it.) An interesting paper recounting the political defeat of the Moon Treaty in the United States was presented at the 2008 AIAA Aerospace Sciences meeting by Thomas Gangale.

Though many will remember Neil because of his role in the Moon Treaty negotiations, he was involved in many other issues as NASA’s General Counsel. In addition to being a great lawyer, Neil was a really nice person. I was a relative youngster back then and Neil was always more than willing to explain the intricacies of space law and COPUOS to me. It has been many years since our paths crossed, but I very much appreciate the time he spent sharing with me his excitement and enthusiasm for space law.

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