New Mexico has done a lot for the fledgling suborbital spaceflight industry, primarily by building a $200 million spaceport from which Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture plans to begin taking paying passengers to the edge of space as soon as late 2013. To succeed, however, Spaceport America needs one more thing from the state: legislation to protect suppliers to companies like Virgin Galactic from lawsuits filed on behalf of customers killed or injured on suborbital flights.
Currently suborbital operators enjoy this protection, but efforts to extend the shield to their hardware suppliers have foundered in the New Mexico State Legislature. Failure to reverse these fortunes could prove costly: Virgin Galactic, which is the furthest along of several suborbital ventures, is threatening to take its operation elsewhere if the law is not passed soon.
This might sound like saber rattling, but these companies do have alternatives. Florida and Virginia — both of which have infrastructure in place to support the suborbital industry — are among several states that have passed legislation shielding manufacturers and suppliers from passenger lawsuits.
This is not to advocate for one state over another, but the citizens of New Mexico have anted up big for Spaceport America, whose major infrastructure elements are nearing completion. To be healthy, the spaceport needs multiple rent-paying clients — Virgin Galactic cannot shoulder that burden all by itself.
The main obstacle to passing the legislation appears to be the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, whose members presumably are worried that it could cost them lost business down the road. That’s possible in theory — never mind that the law wouldn’t apply in cases involving gross negligence — but if legal exposure drives Virgin Galactic and others elsewhere, all of New Mexico loses.
This legislation will not cost the state one dime, and would not affect the right of uninvolved third parties to sue if they are harmed in any way by suborbital spaceflight activities. Simply put, there is no good reason not to pass this law. New Mexico’s state authorities and economic advocates should do everything in their power to ensure that this gets done in the next legislative session.