Spaceport Liability Coverage An Issue With Virgin Galactic
January 14, 2013

Virgin Galactic Threatening To Leave New Mexico Spaceport Over Liability Coverage

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Officials from Virgin Galactic are reportedly threatening to pull their support from a $200-plus million, publicly financed spaceport in New Mexico unless an accident liability waver is extended to cover manufacturers and component suppliers.

According to Edward Helmore of The Guardian, Sir Richard Branson´s space tourism company has been displeased with state lawmakers failure to grant the extension.

New Mexico legislators are scheduled to discuss the liability issue this week, he says, but there have been mixed reactions to the company´s request, largely because it is currently not known what kinds of risks are involved with commercial, suborbital flight.

The facility, which is known as Spaceport America, cost $209 million to build — funds that were raised through bond issues and tax increases, The Guardian reported Saturday.

This week, Branson is scheduled to make the first monthly rent payment for use of the spaceport — a payment that the Associated Press (AP) reports will cost Virgin Galactic more than $85,000, or 1/12 the $1 million charge agreed to under a 20-year lease in 2009.

However, that payment will only be made by Branson´s firm if “all the terms of its lease agreement have been met,” the wire service added. “Anger has been rising after Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides indicated last year that failure to pass new legislation would force his company to rethink its plans,” Helmore added.

Likewise, a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman told The Guardian, “Without the legislation in place, New Mexico will be perceived as a place that is less friendly to space business. This law costs taxpayers nothing and yet it will help keep the state at the top of the list for commercial space operations.”

Earlier this month, representatives of the spaceport made a similar plea to lawmakers, asking them to limit potential lawsuits resulting from wealthy space tourists. Such protections, they argued, were essential to the future of the Spaceport America project, Jeri Clausing of the website reported.

“Legal experts, however, say there is no way to know whether the so-called informed consent laws will offer any protection to spacecraft operators and suppliers in the event something goes wrong,” she explained. “At issue is liability for passengers who pay to take spaceflights – like those planned by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic for $200,000 a head – from the spaceport near the city of Truth or Consequences.”

Supporters are adamant that New Mexico must pass such a bill in order to “retain anchor tenant Virgin Galactic and to recruit new space business to the state,” Clausing said. “New Mexico lawmakers several years ago passed a bill that exempts Virgin Galactic from being sued by passengers in the event of an accident provided they have been informed of the risks.”

“Officials have refused, however, to follow a handful of other states in expanding that exemption to suppliers,” she added. “Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson has blamed New Mexico's refusal during the last two legislative sessions to expand the law as the reason the spaceport has been passed over by companies in favor of states such as Texas and Florida” — and now Virgin Galactic has hinted that they ultimately may take their business elsewhere, as well.