New Mexico Senate Approves Liability Bill for Spaceport

By Tim Korte | February 16, 2010

Legislation aimed at protecting New Mexico’s spaceport from liability while the commercial space industry tackles the hazards of space flight was approved by a 37-0 vote in the state Senate.

The approval is a victory for spaceport director Steve Landeene, who has portrayed the bill as critical to developing the $200 million complex located 45 miles north of Las Cruces.

“We’re not quite there yet, but it was great seeing the Senate give us unanimous support,” Landeene said.

The legislation, which next goes to the House, outlines risks of space flight and requires companies taking anyone into space to obtain a signed waiver where the passenger acknowledges inherent dangers.

It protects New Mexico from liability but operators could still be sued if a judge determined “gross negligence” resulted in death or bodily injury.

New Mexico holds a major advantage in commercial space development, Landeene said, because Virgin Galactic has made a commitment to the state to use the spaceport to take passengers who pay $200,000 on space flights starting in 2011.

Virgin Galatic president Will Whitehorn said in an e-mail the New Mexico legislation “is in line with making Spaceport America a national competitive champion in the race to attract commercial space activities.”

The measure was revived this week after being tabled by a committee. Lobbyists for trial lawyers expressed concern that an initial draft would have made it impossible to seek damages against manufacturers outside New Mexico who produce faulty rockets or other equipment.

Tabling the bill gave Landeene time to address those concerns.

“It does not protect the component manufacturers,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. “A plaintiff can still sue. There’s still a duty to exercise care. It’s just a way that we’re looking at protecting the investment in the spaceport.”

New Mexico’s bill is modeled after legislation approved in 2008 in Florida, and Landeene said failure to follow suit would present “a real business risk” to the state because companies might look elsewhere to launch commercial space vehicles.

Virginia lawmakers passed a similar measure in 2007. Landeene said New Mexico’s bill will help develop an industry standard for liability.

Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Las Cruces, said she recently attended a conference in California, where 40 women who work in government from around the nation heard about New Mexico’s spaceport. She said they were excited about the presentation.

“It is a very innovative thing,” Garcia said. “It’s an initiative that’s going to bring a lot of jobs and we do need to remain competitive.”

Associated Press Writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Santa Fe contributed to this report.

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