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Updated: Gov. to sign space travel liability bill

SANTA FE, N.M. — Gov. Susana Martinez Tuesday was scheduled to sign liability-waiving legislation aimed at saving the state’s nearly quarter-billion-dollar investment in a futuristic spaceport and retaining its anchor tenant, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America officials have been fighting for years to get the legislation enacted, saying commercial space companies have passed over New Mexico in favor of states with more lenient liability exemptions. And Virgin had hinted last year it might abandon plans to launch its $200,000-per-person spaceflights from New Mexico if the bill failed again this year.

In January, Virgin began paying its $1 million-a-year rent. But it told the state it was doing so only under protest and without making a commitment to some of the other provisions of its long-term lease. And Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides said last month that the company and the state still had a “laundry list” of issues to resolve.

Whitesides did not immediately respond to an email or phone call seeking comment Tuesday about whether the company was now committed to the long term in New Mexico. But Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson said she believed Virgin’s problems with the state have been resolved.

“They are paying rent. They are happy with the building, and they are proceeding with the fit-out,” she said.

The legislation to be signed Tuesday is intended to help the state attract more companies to the $209 million project in southern New Mexico by exempting spacecraft parts suppliers from liability lawsuits by passengers. Lawmakers had previously exempted spacecraft operators from liability, but some space companies began passing up Spaceport America in favor of states that had extended those protections to suppliers.

Whitesides said last year that  it was “very concerning” that other space companies were not coming to the spaceport. The company, he said, signed up for a “healthy spaceport” with multiple businesses that could divide the costs. Whitesides said Virgin Galactic would work with lawmakers on the liability legislation and then re-evaluate.

Other states, including Texas and Florida, are also developing spaceports. Most of them are revamping old airports or other facilities. New Mexico’s is unique because it is the first to be developed from scratch.

Anderson said Tuesday that she hoped the new law, as well as commercial tax breaks passed as part of a last-minute deal between the Legislature and Martinez, will strengthen her recruitment efforts.