A Letter from Senator John Arthur Smith

Posted on January 6, 2013
Senator John Arthur Smith

Lawmakers Can Save Spaceport

Senator John Arthur SmithBy Sen. John Arthur Smith / Chairman, Senate Finance Committee on Sunday December 30, 2012

Our state has the opportunity to become a global leader in commercial space flight. Over the past five years, our state has invested over $200 million in taxpayer money to build the world class Spaceport America east of Truth or Consequences. Its purpose has been achieved – New Mexico is positioned to be the nation’s leader in space travel, with the best facility and the best operator.

Think of the future: the jobs in the commercial space industry, companies coming to locate in all parts of New Mexico to support this new industry, and this new generation of astronauts coming to our state to experience space travel.

However, we are now in danger of throwing it all away unless the New Mexico Legislature acts on a critical piece of legislation. If not, Spaceport America could become a ghost town, with tumbleweeds crossing the runways. Our anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, which has demonstrated a commitment to this state, could pull out and move operations to another state. Finally, the space industry in our state would then collapse and all our hopes, dreams, and $200 million in taxpayer investment would vanish.

Currently, New Mexico law grants immunity to the operators of space ships, such as Virgin Galactic. However, it does not grant similar immunity to the manufacturers and suppliers of parts for the space ships. In the event of a space accident, these companies could be sued, despite the fact that the passengers know the risks and are required to sign a liability waiver acknowledging the risks inherent to space travel. Just like snow skiing, bungee jumping and skydiving, the people who chose to ride into space acknowledge that they understand and accept the risk associated with those activities.

If manufacturers and suppliers can be sued, they will not locate at the Spaceport and that facility will go unused. More importantly, these same companies will pressure Virgin Galactic not to launch here in order to avoid liability. Instead of operating in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic and other companies will relocate to other states that offer greater protections from lawsuits.

Many have asked why this wasn’t addressed before we built the Spaceport. The answer is that, at the time, we had the best liability laws in the nation. In the last two years, however, Texas, Colorado, Florida and Virginia, all states who want our space travel business, have changed their laws and now New Mexico is at a terrible disadvantage.

The change in law required to keep the burgeoning space travel industry in New Mexico would not cost New Mexicans a dime and it would only apply to passengers who have voluntarily agreed to accept the risks associated with space travel. It is important to note that those individuals who were not passengers would still be able to sue and the liability waiver for passengers would not exempt gross negligence.

The ski industry in New Mexico has been afforded similar protections. When you buy a ski ticket, you waive your right to sue the ski operator if certain rules are properly followed, such as marking dangerous or hazardous areas. When you buy a ticket to go to space, you willingly assume all of the risk. What’s more, those assuming the risk of space flight would be required to sign a waiver acknowledging that they understand and accept the risks.

In order to ensure that the state of the art $200 million Spaceport facility does not go to waste, the Legislature must pass and the governor must sign this legislation during the next legislative session.

Let’s meet the challenge and push through new legislation to keep the Spaceport alive and the innumerable jobs that will come with it.

Also signed by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces; Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque; and Rep. Jim White, Republican Whip from Albuquerque.

Sen. John Arthur Smith is a Deming Democrat.

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