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May 17

Walter Thiebaut (1945-2018)

It is with great sadness that IISL announces the passing of Walter Thiebaut, on 19 April 2018 at the age of 72. He spent more than 30 years as a civil servant with the European Space Agency and its predecessor organisations, firstly at ELDO, then at ESRO.

After his Doctorate in Law, obtained from KU Leuven, Walter Thiebaut joined the European space organisations on 1 January 1972.

His pioneering work and numerous publications in law of space cooperation, contracts and insurance will remain as unique and valuable insights of the legal events of his time. Many space legal practitioners have enjoyed working alongside of this exceptional colleague.

Since 1989, he had frequently participated in events organised in the framework of the European Centre for Space Law, such as the Practitioners’ Forum or the Summer Course on Space Law and Policy, thus encouraging interdisciplinary and intergenerational approaches and exchanges, beyond the usual space research community. He served as visiting Professor at the Catholic University of Leuven since 2009, also acting as a judge of the European Round of the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition on several occasions.

At ISU, a Member of the Board of Trustees and of the Space Policy, Economics and Law Department, Walter Thiebaut strongly supported the development of the International Space University, which has graduated more than 5000 students from over 100 countries.

As ESA’s liaison officer in Washington in the late 70s, he facilitated the building of a robust partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, when he was addressed the modalities of ESA-NASA long standing and successful history of cooperation, then mainly in the area of space science and later for the International Space Station, laid down in legal instruments which, in the majority of cases, take the form of a MOU. Regarding the order of precedence under national law between international agreements and US domestic legislation, he suggested ways of alleviating related inconveniences. The validity of such instruments came to the fore particularly when ESA was confronted with difficulties in the execution of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Spacelab, signed on 14 August 1973, and of the Memorandum of Understanding on the International Solar Polar Mission (ISPM), signed on 29 March 1979. He concluded that the success of a cooperative project depends largely on the good-faith understanding of both parties to the MOU, as the history of cooperation between NASA and ESA had proved, such as the amazing Cassini-Huygens planetary mission, allowing the ESA atmospheric entry probe to land successfully on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.

Walter participated in numerous international negotiations, working alongside with European and non-European space actors. He acted as observer at sessions of the UNCOPUOS Legal Sub-committee and attended several international conferences which presided over the destiny of space cooperation.

In learning his unexpected passing away, Marco Ferrazzani, present ESA Legal Counsel said: “We all felt great sorrow and surprise at the loss of Walter, as if he could never leave us. His enjoyable and realistic attitude will remain with our spirit.”

Our thoughts are with all those who were fortunate to share pioneering times and precious moments with him.