C. Leo DeOrsey, the first space lawyer

Let us have a look, for this new Space Legal Issues article, at C. Leo DeOrsey, the first space lawyer. Sixty two years ago this spring, seven young military officers were elected as America’s first astronauts. These seven men were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald Slayton. They became the nation’s Mercury astronauts and were considered as the cream of the crop. As such, Life magazine wrote “the country was introduced to the first Americans – perhaps the first human being – who will orbit in space”.

Within four months, the astronauts signed a special contract for the first space program. In August 1959, Time, Inc., on behalf of Life magazine, paid $500,000 for exclusive rights to the personal stories of selected astronauts and their families. This lifetime contract created an unprecedented deal preventing all other media from covering the personal lives of astronauts. NASA fully approved the contract and assisted in its execution.

Who was C. Leo DeOrsey, the first space lawyer?

On May 2, 1959, the Mercury astronauts signed an agreement with C. Leo DeOrsey, a prominent Washington lawyer, to “sell their story”. The agreement stated that the astronauts agreed that a “joint effort to sell these rights appears to be the most practical approach” and that representation on their behalf should be obtained. The deal made C. Leo DeOrsey their agent, and he would act on their behalf, dividing all funds equally among the seven.

There were two unique clauses in the contract with C. Leo DeOrsey: first, if an astronaut withdrew from the program, he would lose his share of the money; and second, C. Leo DeOrsey has agreed to serve the astronauts without compensation and “will personally defray all expenses incurred for him in this project”.

It’s important to note two things here: first, NASA had a serious precedent for drawing a line between “personal” and “official” stories. After World War II, Returning War Heroes wrote and were paid magazine stories about their military exploits. Frankly, this part of “checkbook journalism” was not uncommon for government – or Life – in the 1950s.

Second, no NASA official signed the contract, making this transaction only between C. Leo DeOrsey and the astronauts. This means that technically and legally astronauts, not NASA, have sold their own personal stories to the highest bidder.

If at any time during the course of Mercury Project, in the judgement of Time, it is decided that the value of the personal stories of the Astronauts and their wives is badly impaired or lost, Time may terminate this agreement by paying to C. Leo DeOrsey on account of the astronauts the sum of seventy thousand dollars.

After just over two months of negotiation, C. Leo DeOrsey signed the contract with Time, Inc. for “all rights of any kind throughout the world in and personal stories of ballistic and orbital flights performed by astronauts during the course and in connection with the Mercury project”. The deal also included the personal stories of the astronauts’ wives, although they did not sign the contract. C. Leo DeOrsey and Robert T. Elson of Time, Inc. signed the contract, and it was filed and recorded in New York on August 5, 1959.

The agreement’s controversies

In the only magazine that analyzed the contract process, Robert Sherrod called this period “one of the most illuminating morality tales of the time”. His review, published fifteen years after the contract was signed, carried a mixed signal. According to him, the media control created by the execution of the first contract between the Mercury 7 astronauts poses four main questions.

First of all, was NASA trying to invoke censorship by recommending the deal?

The contract stipulated that Time, Inc. controlled the content of the stories and images used on the characters of the astronauts. The magazine also reserved the right to approve external writing assignments agreed to by the astronauts’ wives. No material would be released that may be deemed restrictive or secret by NASA officials or the Department of Defense. This statement gave NASA the right to endorse history and, ostensibly, censorship. And while reporters who wrote for Life say NASA rarely invoked this censorship, it was still there. This study will answer this question by examining the media control, defining the parameters of the contract and examining the scope and limits – of reality. NASA’s motivations for participating in the establishment of this contract will also be discussed.

Second, how did the media react in 1959 to the contracting process? Research will show that although the contract has been challenged by news organizations across America, but has never been challenged by a lawsuit or legal action. In fact, initial media coverage of the contract in 1959 was limited to brief mentions in associated press articles and news magazines, and these publications generally died out within a month.

A third question will examine how the contract prohibits rapporteurs from covering all aspects of the Mercury Project. Research will suggest that, throughout the life of the contract and Mercury Project, reporters circumvented the deal, writing personal stories and books about astronauts.

Finally, how important is the contract for the history of journalism in general? How did a four-year contract period change – and challenge – journalists of the 1960s? This is what can be said concerning C. Leo DeOrsey, the first space lawyer.