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Warding Off Risk

LAS CRUCES – The Spaceport Authority will take another crack at expanding liability protections for the spacecraft operator supply chain in case of accidents, in order to put New Mexico on an equal footing with other states.

The Space Flight Informed Consent Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2010, holds spaceflight operators, such as the spaceport’s anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, harmless from passenger lawsuits in case of accidents, but offers no protection to Virgin Galactic suppliers and contractors, such as the manufacturers of the space vehicles.

Since the New Mexico law was passed, other states competing to host commercial spaceflight operations – Texas, Florida and Virginia – have passed more robust legislation that holds operators and suppliers harmless from passenger lawsuits, said Christine Anderson, executive director of the Spaceport Authority.

Passage of such legislation in other states, Anderson said, puts New Mexico at a competitive disadvantage and could lead manufacturers and other contractors to avoid doing business here.

“We have to pass this or I don’t think Spaceport America will be successful,” Anderson said Wednesday following a meeting of the Spaceport Authority, which voted to pursue a legislative amendment.

An effort to pass such an amendment stalled earlier this year in the House Judiciary Committee, so the Spaceport Authority will try again in the January session.

Anderson and Spaceport Authority board member Ben Woods stressed that the change would not prevent victims of accidents on the ground from seeking damages, just the passengers on each Virgin Galactic flight who already must sign a waiver.

In addition, spaceflight passengers could still file suit in cases of gross negligence or intentional injury.

The fix, the Spaceport Authority said, is vital to protecting the state’s investment of more than $200 million in taxpayer funds into the construction of the spaceport facility in southern Sierra County.

Also at the meeting, Anderson disclosed that British automaker Aston Martin paid the authority $25,000 to use the spaceport site Oct. 18 as the backdrop for a photo shoot featuring its $2 million supercar, the One-77. An Aston Martin designer drove the One-77 up to speeds approaching 200 mph on the spaceport’s 10,000-foot-long runway.

The Spaceport Authority will entertain other requests to use the site in an effort to generate revenue and make the facility self-sustaining as long as the proposal is “consistent with our brand,” Anderson said.