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Another special favor for the Spaceport

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By Merilee Dannemann

 It’s all go for Spaceport America. According to Christine Armstrong, executive director of the Spaceport Authority, 500 people already are signed up to fly into space with Virgin Galactic, at a ticket price of $200,000 apiece. A grand visitor center is scheduled to open in 2013.  
Since the spaceport is several miles from I-25, two welcome centers will be constructed convenient to the highway, and shuttle buses will take visitors from those centers to the spaceport itself. After the current bond issues expire, the facility has a plan to be self-supporting.
New Mexico has to do just one more little thing for the space industry. It’s not quite enough that we built them a spaceport with taxpayer money. The state has to guarantee that their passengers won’t sue them. Or, I should say, their passengers’ heirs, if the passengers  – since we’re speaking plainly – get killed on the trip, whether vaporized by a collision with an asteroid or whatever.  
It’s not the spaceship operators we have to protect. New Mexico has already done that. This next one is for the suppliers to the spaceship operators.  
New Mexico enacted the Space Flight Informed Consent Act in 2010. Under this law, the space flight operator is held harmless by the passenger for any accident in space. The passenger will have signed an informed-consent document before boarding.  
But three other states – Texas, Florida and Virginia — have extended this protection to suppliers, companies that provide products and services to the spaceship operators and could share liability in an accident. Armstrong said those companies will not locate in New Mexico unless we extend that protection to them, also.  As she presented it, New Mexico has no choice.  Enact the extended protection or else.
We can expect to see this introduced in the 2012 legislative session. After spending $200 million building the darn thing, the sensible thing is to protect the state’s investment and pass the bill.
As hold-harmless protections go, this one is not unreasonable. After all, space flight is still in its infancy and anybody who boards a commercial space flight is taking a big risk. But it does lead to some reflection.  
It’s yet another instance of the economic-development rivalry game, in which privileged industries play state and local governments against each other for special protections and benefits. In the competition for jobs and economic growth, governments fall all over themselves helping these industries. The recent move to reduce New Mexico’s incentives to the film industry was the rare exception, and we all know it remains wildly controversial.
And it’s selective tort reform, again for the benefit of a privileged industry. When a hold harmless is in place, the protected industry is relieved of some worry and a great deal of potential expense, including a whole lot of insurance that will not be needed. Wouldn’t we all love to have such a protection – except, of course, when we are the injured party?  
At the same time, the 2010 statute makes an exception to the exemption for gross negligence or wanton disregard of safety. Translation: There’s still potential for a personal injury suit if the wing falls off the spaceship, but it requires a legally sufficient demonstration of extreme carelessness.  
Armstrong noted, by the way, the law applies only to the fully informed passengers. If you are a mere earthling minding your own business on the ground and a piece of debris from the space ship tears through your house, you can still sue for damages.
The hold harmless doesn’t apply to you. Take comfort.

Merilee Dannemann
© New Mexico  News Services 2012