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.

Written by Astro1 on December 30th, 2012 , Spaceports

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    Alden Richards commented

    As someone who spent the better part of 25 years in aerospace insurance, it seems ludicrous that ANY government agency-state or federal- should grant special indemnification or protections to the “Space Industry”, as some call it.
    Why should the public dollar protect any componenet of Virgin Galactic’s joy-ride business?
    The problem is solved simply by a wrap-up liability program that covers ALL parties to the enterprise.
    The Spacecraft Insurance market could readily provide up to $500 million in coverage covering everyone involved.
    God forbid such important participants as The Elephant Butte Inn or Celestial Wedding chapel should suffer.

    January 4, 2013 at 11:43 am
      admin commented

      First of all, you’re misunderstanding the difference between indemnification and tort reform. Liability reform does not involve “public dollars,” as you state.

      Second, having dealt with insurance companies as a customer, I know there is nothing “simple” about insurance coverage. I have lost seven friends in aviation accidents. Insurance does not protect against lawsuits. At best, it provides some protection from financial damages. At worst, it’s an attractive nuisance.

      The spaceflight liability legislation parallels legislation that has been passed for other industries such as skiing (as mentioned here) and horseback riding. Without equestrian liability laws, riding stables would not exist.

      I’m not sure what you have against hotels and wedding chapels, but America is in the middle of a recession. We can’t afford to sacrifice more jobs simply to benefit trial lawyers.

      Finally, when you refer to spaceflight as “joy rides,” you’ve flipped the bozo bit. Does insulting customers really help you sell insurance?

      January 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm
        Alden Richards commented

        I do understand the difference. I am merely assuming the “spaceport’s” next push will be for indemnification over an above a prescribed insurance limit-similar that given the major launch providers.
        I do not espouse insurance being “simple”, but it is available and can provide protection. What else should insurance provide? One assumes Virgin and the others practice on-going risk-management, but I doubt any knowledgeable commercial customer regards insurance as an attractive nuisance.
        In any event, all this hold-hramless approach will wither the first time one of these “space tourism” flights prangs with a manifest of wealthy customers. “Gross Negligence” is an undefined term when applied to these types of endeavors. With regard to equine liability, several states, including New York, California and Maryland, have NO such statutue…and there are plenty of horses and equine facilities in those States.
        With regard to my “joyride” comment..ok..a bit flippant, but what else would you call it? $200K to see the brown, New Mexico desert and be nauseous for 3 minutes. Reminds me of the poor, monied souls hauled up Everest every year. And Virgin calls the astronauts?! Please.
        I certainly will defend any venture that is trying to pave new ground, but I reserve the right to call them on nonsense if the adjective fits the bill…and whining about tort reform when the State of New Mexico has built an elaborate “SpacePort” for them is a little ridiculous. I can think of a hundred industries that are more deserving of some support in this way.

        And, yes, the facts and realism-presented clearly and effectively-are what customers in ANY industry require from their allies and consultants.

        January 5, 2013 at 2:54 pm
          admin commented

          “I am merely assuming the “spaceport’s” next push will be for indemnification over an above a prescribed insurance limit-similar that given the major launch providers.”

          There’s an old saying about what happens when you “assume.”

          “I doubt any knowledgeable commercial customer regards insurance as an attractive nuisance.”

          Your doubts have no relation to reality. I have personally witnessed a $1 million lawsuit that dragged on for two years and was finally settled for the full policy limit, at the insistence of the insurance company. The defendant in the case had done nothing wrong but the trial lawyers took the case anyway because the insurance company had “deep pockets.”

          “With regard to equine liability, several states, including New York, California and Maryland, have NO such statutue…”

          Senator Michael Ranzenhofer has introduced an equine liability statute, the “Equine Activity Safety Code Act,” in New York State. Contrary to jokes about Yankees, they aren’t as dumb as you imply.

          “With regard to my “joyride” comment..ok..a bit flippant, but what else would you call it? $200K to see the brown, New Mexico desert and be nauseous for 3 minutes. Reminds me of the poor, monied souls hauled up Everest every year.”

          We call it space exploration. The fact that you don’t have the right stuff for it is irrelevant. In a free country, people don’t have to limit their activities to those which meet your approval. Which is pretty fortunate, since you apparently lie awake at night in fear that someone might be having fun.

          Meanwhile, other insurance agents support liability reform. They see a potentially profitable opportunity to sell life and accident insurance policies to spaceflight participants, rather than extorting it out of companies through the threat of tort litigation. If you can’t do the same, you have no one but yourself to blame.

          January 5, 2013 at 5:32 pm
    Steve commented

    It seems to me the doctrine being espoused…. that if operators are doing their jobs properly and following established procedure, they should not be liable for unforseen issues beyond their control. I like this doctrine, a person buying a ticket for an activity should understand and take responsibility for risks involved.

    That said…. I am strongly against making exceptions. It seems to me neither the space port nor ski slopes should need this, and the need for this legislation is evidence that legislators have already not done their job. This doctrine should not be the exception, but the rule.

    January 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm
    Ron commented

    In all activities there is a level of risk. What government should do is insure businesses who provide services or products disclose the risk in an understandable form. If the risks have been properly disclosed and the person wants to take them then the provider should not be liable in any way. I’m not talking about a simple this stuff might kill you but more substantive mini training that you must actually understand. If the business cannot prove you understand (IE pass a test about it) they should be liable for selling to someone who is not an informed risk taker. If a business sells you a service or product and does not disclose the risks they should be held responsible. This should never absolve providers and manufacturers of liability in case of negligence. I’m all for informed risk taking, however we should try and protect the idiots from the unscrupulous.

    January 4, 2013 at 10:27 pm