A group of New Mexico legislators led by Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Demming) is warning that the $200-million Spaceport America “could become a ghost town, with tumbleweeds crossing the runways” if critical liability legislation is not passed.
The New Mexico legislature has passed a liability law that protects space-transportation operators such as Virgin Galactic, but the bill does not cover vehicle manufacturers and part suppliers. That omission puts New Mexico “at a terrible disadvantage” relative to Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia, Smith said.
In a letter to the Albuquerque Journal, Smith warned that “Our anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, which has demonstrated a commitment to this state, could pull out and move operations to another state.” Smith is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The letter was also signed by signed by Sen. Mary Kay Papen (D-Las Cruces), Rep. Nate Gentry (R-Albuquerque), and Rep. Jim White (R-Albuquerque).
Smith said the protections being proposed in the new legislation are similar to those which New Mexico offers to the ski industry. “When you buy a ski ticket, you waive your right to sue the ski operator if certain rules are properly followed…. When you buy a ticket to go to space, you willingly assume all of the risk.”
The new liability legislation is opposed by New Mexico trial lawyers, including Sen. Lisa Curtis (D-Albuquerque). Earlier this year, trial lawyers were successful in the watering down a liability bill in California, an action which is helping to drive space-transportation companies such as XCOR Aerospace out of that state.
New Mexico legislators will consider the new bill during a 60-day sesion that begins January 15. Virgin Galactic has signed a 20-year lease on Spaceport America. If it breaks the lease, the company will owe the state $1.5-$2 million, a negligable return on the state’s $209 investment.
Virgin Galactic has not decided whether it will pull out of New Mexico if the legislation fails to pass. Virgin Galactic president George Whitesides told Space News that Virgin Galactic is “going to look at what the legislature does and then evaluate our stance toward the spaceport after the session.” Whitesides is worried that trial lawyers could drive other tenants away from the spaceport. “It’s a serious issue and a big deal for us. If we’re the only tenant at the spaceport, then it is unlikely the spaceport will be healthy.”
An eclectic group of business and civic interests has formed the Save Our Spaceport Coalition to support the liability legislation. Members include the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico Space Technology Applications Research Group, New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Association, Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Association of New Mexico, Kirtland Partnership Committee, Raton Public Schools, New Mexico Wine Tours, Sierra County Economic Development Organization, Ruidoso Tourism, Roadrunner Tours, South Central Council of Governments, New Mexico Chamber of Executives Association, Desert Aerospace, Progressive Construction Management, the City of Truth or Consequences, Elephant Butte Inn, Fiore Industries, Follow the Sun Tours, Ultramain Systems, Nash Ventures, Heritage Hotels and Resorts, Cutter Aviation, New Mexico Pilots Association, Wolf Aviation Fund, HB Construction, New Mexico Technology Council, SatWest, Blue Gold Mining & Aggregate, New Mexico Lodging Association, Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association, Santa Fe Lodging Association, the Inn and Spa at Loretto, Riverbend Hot Springs, Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, Celestial Wedding Chapel, Elephant Butte Chamber of Commerce, Sierra County Tourism Advisory Board, and Santa Fe Business Solutions.