Lawmakers Announce Deal on Spaceport Legislation

By BARRY MASSEY | January 24, 2013

New Mexico law will protect spacecraft part suppliers from damage lawsuits by passengers on space tourism flights launched from the state under a compromise proposal announced Tuesday by Democratic legislative leaders.

House and Senate leaders said the agreement was vital for developing a commercial space travel industry at a state-financed spaceport in southern New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic plans to fly tourists into outer space at $200,000-a-ticket from Spaceport America near the community of Truth or Consequences.

Current state law exempts Virgin Galactic from being sued for damages by passengers if there was an accident and they had been informed of the risks of space travel. However, that liability protection doesn’t cover the suppliers and manufacturers of spacecraft parts and components.

Top House and Senate leaders said an agreement to limit the liability of parts suppliers was negotiated by trial lawyer representatives and officials of Virgin Galactic at the prodding of lawmakers. The talks have taken place for several months.

“Too much has been invested by both the state and Virgin Galactic to abandon this project,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat and lawyer, said in a statement. “It is in New Mexico’s best interests that the spaceport project moves forward quickly, with as much consumer protection as possible.”

Legislation that would have exempted parts suppliers and manufacturers from damage lawsuits has stalled in the Legislature for several years despite warnings from government and business officials that commercial space companies will likely go to other states such as Florida without a change in New Mexico’s law.

Senate President Mary Kay Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat who has sponsored the spaceport bill in the past, said she supported the latest proposal.

Virgin Galactic did not immediately respond to a telephone message and email seeking comment. A lobbyist for the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association also did not immediately return a message left at his law office requesting comment on the proposed legislation.

Lawmakers predicted the measure should clear the Democratic-controlled Legislature without problem. They said suppliers and manufacturers involved in space flights will be required to carry $1 million in liability insurance coverage.

“This is a bill that everybody has worked on and is very happy about. This is one of those successes that we can move along quickly,” said House Speaker W. Ken Martinez, a Grants Democrat and lawyer.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez, said the governor’s office hasn’t seen the proposed legislation.

“The governor met with leaders from Virgin Galactic today and is hopeful that the final legislation that passes will lead to the company’s commitment to stay in New Mexico, and that it will lead to making New Mexico capable of attracting other space industry business,” said Knell.

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