Former Gov. Bill Richardson will be going to work for a California spaceport to help push lawmakers there for an expanded “informed consent” law protecting manufacturers and suppliers of private spacecraft from most civil lawsuits.
Stuart Witt, executive director of the Mojave Air and Space Port, confirmed Monday that Richardson has been hired as a consultant. Terms of his deal will be made public Wednesday when the spaceport’s governing authority reviews the contract.
Mojave is seeking expanded protection in California similar to the kind the Martinez administration is pushing the New Mexico Legislature to adopt for Spaceport America – a $209 million project near Truth or Consequences that was one of Richardson’s signature initiatives.
New Mexico trial lawyers oppose the legislation, which died in this year’s session. Industry experts, the governor and business leaders say the legislation is crucial to New Mexico growing a commercial space industry.
Witt said Richardson has provided insights into how to get the law passed in California.
“We’ve tried unsuccessfully three times in the last eight years,” Witt said in a telephone interview. “He (Richardson) has been helpful in refining our approach to getting the legislation passed.”
Richardson did not respond to emails seeking a comment on his role with the Mojave spaceport.
The informed consent law currently on the books in New Mexico applies only to the operator of the space flight. California recently enacted a similar law, but like the New Mexico legislation the industry says it doesn’t go far enough.
The spaceport business nationally has become increasingly competitive. Texas, Florida, Colorado and Virginia have informed consent laws in place that also provide lawsuit protection to protect manufacturers and suppliers.
Richardson supported New Mexico’s current law.
Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, said, “Richardson is certainly free to consult or help with the spaceport activities of another state, but in New Mexico, this just highlights how important it is for us to ensure that we continue to lead in this industry by passing legislation in the upcoming session that prevents lawsuit abuse.”
Darnell said the legislation is “common sense, it means jobs and economic development, and it would protect the significant investment that taxpayers have already made in Spaceport America.”
He said the industry is an incredibly competitive industry – not just with regard to manned space flight, but with regard to manufacturing and research and development as well.
Witt said the Mojave Air and Space Port isn’t competing with Spaceport America.
“I know the media likes to play this up as a competition between our spaceports but it’s not,” Witt said. “We’re trying to launch an entire worldwide industry.”
Witt said he and others from the Mojave spaceport consulted extensively on the design of the New Mexico spaceport.
There are more than 40 companies at the Mojave spaceport involved in manufacturing, research and development of manned and unmanned space flight.
“Our focus is on research and development, and manufacturing,” Witt said. “New Mexico is a commercial spaceport. We want to build the craft launched in New Mexico.”
Christine Anderson, executive director of Spaceport America, said Witt’s description of the relationship between the two space ports “is currently true.”
But Anderson said she is concerned that New Mexico will fail to attract tenants to its spaceport because of the lack of a more encompassing informed consent law and will fall behind states that have such laws.
“Increasingly the operators are the manufacturers,” Anderson said. “That’s why an emerging industry needs these protections.”
Meanwhile, Mark Butler of Virgin Galactic said during an industry roundtable at Albuquerque’s Sunport last week that New Mexico used to top the list of states for aerospace development because of its Spaceport. But he said the state is falling to the bottom because the Legislature has not passed the informed consent legislation.
Virgin Galactic has received deposits of $67.5 million for the $200,000 ticket to the edge of space. Spaceport America also stands to benefit from non-tourist commercial space launches once that business gets established.
Anderson said the spaceport and Martinez intend to introduce legislation extending the informed consent law to manufacturers and suppliers in next year’s legislative session.
“We can’t attract manufacturers to New Mexico without it,” Anderson said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal