Mojave Spaceport Hires Consultant as Prospects for Limited Liability Bill Brighten

To boldly go.... (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

The East Kern Airport District (EKAD) has hired a former state senator to help promote legislation that would limit the liability of spacecraft operators if they injure passengers during flights.

On Tuesday, the EKAD Board of Directors voted to hire former Sen. Roy Ashburn at a rate of $5,000 per month over six months for consulting services. Ashburn’s main responsibility is to promote an informed consent bill introduced in February by Assemblyman Steve Knight of California’s 36th district.

Knight’s measure would

require a space flight entity, as defined, to collect a signed warning statement, as specified, from each participant in space flight activities, as defined. In addition to the disclosures required by federal law, the bill would require the warning statement to, at a minimum, inform the participant that the space flight entity is not liable for bodily injury sustained as a result of the risks associated with space flight activities. The bill would limit the liability of a space flight entity that complies with these provisions, except as provided. The bill would state findings and declarations of the Legislature regarding the nature of the space flight industry.

The liability protection does not apply to situations in which a spacecraft operator

(1) Commits an act or omission that constitutes gross negligence evidencing willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the participant, and that act or omission proximately causes a participant injury.

(2) Intentionally causes a participant injury.

If passed and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the measure would put the state on an even footing with Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and Florida, which have passed similar laws. The nascent commercial space industry sees these measures as essential so companies can avoid being sued out of business in the event of serious or fatal accidents.

A Republican, Ashburn represented Mojave in the State Senate from 2002 to 2010. He previously represented the 32nd District, which also covers Mojave, for six years in the California State Assembly and served for a dozen years on the Kern County Board of Supervisors. He now serves on the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.

Mojave Air & Space Port CEO Stu Witt, who initiated the legislation, recommended that EKAD hire Ashburn in order to build support for the measure in Sacramento. The EKAD board oversees the desert spaceport.

Witt said that prospects for the legislation have brightened. The bill made it out of committee with only minor revisions, and was approved by the Rules Committee. This is farther than any previous measures have gotten, he added.

In addition to promoting the legislation, Ashburn is also being tasked to bring Gov. Brown for a visit to the Mojave spaceport by the end of the year. Witt is hoping to get more state support from Brown, who was nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” during an earlier stint in the job because of his far-sighted ideas about space.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Mr. Ashburn would serve as a lobbyist. He is a consultant only.