On Tuesday, the New Mexico Legislature convened for its 2013 session, and one of the key issues it will be dealing with, albeit indirectly, is the future of Spaceport America, the commercial spaceport in the southern part of the state. The $209-million facility’s major elements are nearly complete and its anchor tenant, suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, will start paying rent on them this month. Whether they’ll stick around, though, may depend on whether the legislature passes a key bill.
At issue is the state’s existing informed consent regime for commercial human spaceflight. Current law protects a “space flight entity” from liability for injury to or the death of a spaceflight participant “resulting from the inherent risks of space flight activities.” (That indemnification is not valid in cases of “gross negligence” or intentional injury.) That language is similar to laws in several other states that also protect spaceflight operators from lawsuits in the event of an accident.
The problem in New Mexico is that the current law defines a “space flight entity” is the operator of the vehicle itself (specifically, the entity that holds the FAA launch licence), meaning that the liability protections do not cover other people involved in the manufacture of the vehicle. That leaves suppliers and others open to suits in the event of an accident. That has made it more difficult for the state to encourage other companies to set up operations at Spaceport America, and, in turn, making Virgin Galactic feel like they have to shoulder the burden of the spaceport’s operations alone.
The state attempted to amend the law last year, expanding the liability protection to include suppliers, but the law failed to pass after opposition from trial lawyers, who believe it unfairly restricts the ability of people to sue in the event of an accident. The legislature is making another attempt this year, with bills introduced in the state House and Senate to revise current law. The bills would expand the definition of “space flight entity” to include manufacturers and suppliers of components, vehicles and other services, as well as the people who work for or own those companies. As was the case last year, the legislation has the support of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
At the same time, Virgin Galactic officials have suggested that the company would reconsider its plans to operate from Spaceport America should the liability protection not be expanded. “The state has said it doesn’t want to keep putting money into the spaceport over time, so that sort of leaves us, which isn’t really the vision that we signed up for,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides told Albuquerque TV station KRQE on Thursday. Virgin has stopped short of a direct ultimatum regarding its future at the spaceport, but has made it clear it wants the bill to pass so that the state can lure other companies to the facility and thus not put the full burden of spaceport operations on it.
Still, some people in New Mexico do feel like they’re faced with the choice of passing the bill or losing Virgin Galactic. “Granted if (they’re) holding us hostage, that’s unfortunate,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas told KRQE, “but sometimes you have to pay the ransom.”