Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was in Albuquerque yesterday, telling local business leaders that New Mexico has fallen behind other states in restricting the rights of passengers and their heirs to sue companies like his own in the event of injuries or deaths during spaceflights.
“The state of New Mexico and its taxpayers have made a huge investment in commercial space and in order to protect that investment, it needs to remain in relative parity with other states,” Whitesides said.
“The fact is that the current situation will keep companies from locating in New Mexico and at the spaceport. The bills would change that and would really open the door to new business,” he said.
Asked if Virgin Galactic would re-locate to another state if the bill didn’t pass, Whitesides said the company intends to stay in New Mexico but said the state’s spaceport must recruit additional companies if its going to remain successful.
Whitesides made his remarks at a gathering of the Albuquerque Economic Forum. He urged business leaders to tell state legislators to approve revisions to New Mexico’s informed consent law that requires passengers to sign a statement acknowledging the risks of spaceflight before flying.
The current law provides broad protections against lawsuits to spaceflight operators such as Virgin Galactic in the event of injuries and deaths. Virgin Galactic wants the law extended to its own spacecraft manufacturing operations and its suppliers.
House and Senate legislators are now considering identical bills that would expand the protection and further limit the circumstances under which injured parties could sue. Two previous legislative efforts have failed due to opposition from New Mexico trial lawyers.
Both Virgin Galactic and New Mexico Spaceport Authority officials have stressed the need to attract other tenants to the $209 million, taxpayer-funded spaceport in order to cover operating costs at the remote facility.
While Whitesides has been talking about Virgin Galactic’s intention to stay in New Mexico, others have been warning that failure to pass the legislation could result in the company pulling out and relocating to another state. The Save Our Spaceport (SOS) Coalition has been quite explicit in its warning, as have NMSA and state officials.
If Virgin Galactic pulls out of New Mexico, Spaceport, the effect would be catastrophic, said Christine Anderson, Spaceport America’s executive director.
“They are our anchor tenant,” she said. “Our business plan is modeled after having them there paying rent money for the terminal hangar facility, which is $1 million a year, as well as every flight they fly out of Spaceport America, we get a certain amount on revenue from that.
“If all that revenue went away, we’d have to seriously look at the viability of the Spaceport.”
Anderson said the state would only be able to recover about $2 million of its $209 million investment….
Gov. Susana Martinez has made passing the liability law and saving the spaceport one of her top priorities this session, a far cry from her early skepticism of the project.
“The spaceport is built,” said Keith Gardner, Martinez’s chief of staff. “You can’t tear it down and refund the taxpayers.”
Some lawmakers seem resigned to the passage of the legislation.
“Granted if (they’re) holding us hostage, that’s unfortunate, but sometimes you have to pay the ransom,” said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.
The 60′day legislative session began on Tuesday.