Inside the Capitol

Thursday, March 08, 2012

3-14 Legislature hampers space opportunities

31412 space liab
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Legislature's failure, once again, to expand liability protection for the space industry may send our $200 million spaceport investment down the drain. Trial lawyers again were the major culprit.
The spaceport's major competitors, Florida, Texas, Virginia and Colorado, already have passed the necessary legislation. New Mexico passed limited legislation in 2010, holding harmless spaceflight operators from lawsuits in case of accidents.
But Virgin Galactic passengers already sign waivers. The main problem is the suppliers and contractors, such as manufacturers of space vehicles. This puts New Mexico at a disadvantage. Christine Anderson, executive director of the Spaceport Authority, thinks contractors and manufacturers will avoid doing business here.
Yes, spaceflight is dangerous but the people willing to shell out $200,000 for a ticket have already thought of that. They are adventurers who get a thrill from a little danger.
But how little danger is enough? Federal authorities haven't come up with a standard yet. The numbers for the space shuttle program were high: two catastrophes out of 134 flights. Domestic jet flight deaths are more like one in 30 million.
We won't get that safe but the industry will go slowly. An accident early in the program would be very hard on business.
Speed was important when the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition was underway to see who could make two trips to the edge of space in less than a week.
That was eight years ago. Timetables at that point talked about getting passengers into space in just a few years. But the risks allowable for test pilots and paying passengers are considerably different.
Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic, now says he wants to take his children on the first flight. That flight doesn't appear to be very close.
Safety is now the big consideration. But accidents are bound to happen. And if they do, lawyers will be looking for clients. The industry is skittish. And New Mexico's space competitors are looking to ease those fears and attract business.
It is unfortunate that New Mexico's two most promising industries have been undercut by state government actions. Last year, a cap was placed on movie industry expense rebates.
You may have noticed that this year's Academy Awards were considerably less exciting than the previous several years. Not much happened last year.
Expanded liability protection for the space industry appears to be a major issue for future legislatures and for this year's elections. Voting records on the issue are being tallied and both sides may weigh in.
Meanwhile, not only are other states getting into spaceport building, the number of space companies keeps growing. Virgin Galactic made a big splash, signing on with Scaled Composites soon after it won the X Prize.
But already in the game or joining soon after were Blue Origin, financed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; Armadillo Aerospace, owned by computer-game developer John Cormack; Space X, owned by Leon Musk, creator of PayPal; a company created by Budget Suites owner Robert Bigelow and UP Aerospace, a Colorado company that is Spaceport America's second tenant.
All of these companies, and more, are well along in various specialties. Those specialties include two companies that are building passenger rocket ships. One is building rockets to carry cargo and crew to the space station.
One has already successfully recovered a spacecraft from earth orbit. One has already launched two inflatable space habitats into orbit. These are the precursors to possible research labs or factories that could make products under weightless conditions.
If any of this surprises you, it's likely because little of it is happening in New Mexico. We do have stiff competition to being America's spaceport. We have some advantages, such as isolation and location next to a missile range that already has unlimited air space.
Another advantage is the federal decision to concentrate its efforts outside earth orbit and let private enterprise take care of all the nearby stuff. Not everyone agrees with that decision but many scientists have long said they can do better with unmanned probes.


Post a Comment

<< Home