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Spaceport clears legislative hurdle

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Construction activity is going full throttle at the Sierra County location

By Tim Korte

ALBUQUERQUE — Amid a remote stretch of desert landscape, New Mexico’s springboard to space is evolving into final form.

Construction activity is going at full throttle at the Sierra County location of New Mexico’s spaceport, which is billed as the world’s first site built strictly to launch commercial space vehicles. Officials hope to begin testing spacecraft prototypes next year.

First, they’ll need an operating base.

On that front, all systems are go.

“It is just a flurry of activity,” spaceport director Steve Landeene said. “They’re working on the runway. They’re working on a 10-acre apron. They’re working on the terminal-hangar facility. You see 30 to 50 pieces of heavy machinery all moving in unison.”

As construction pressed ahead in recent months, the state’s $200 million investment — dubbed Spaceport America — got a huge boost during this year’s 30-day legislative session when lawmakers unanimously authorized an informed consent measure.

The bill, signed Feb. 27 by Gov. Bill Richardson, is similar to laws approved earlier in Florida and Virginia. It protects New Mexico’s spaceport and its operators from legal liability if there are injuries or deaths during a spaceflight catastrophe.

It outlines risks of spaceflight and requires that companies taking anyone into space must first obtain a signed waiver where the passenger acknowledges inherent dangers.

Under New Mexico’s law, spacecraft operators still can be sued if a judge determines gross negligence or willful disregard for safety resulted in death or injuries. Otherwise, the state and firms operating from Spaceport America have immunity.

Without the legislation, Landeene said New Mexico was at risk of watching business go elsewhere.

New Mexico already holds a major advantage in commercial space development, Landeene said, because Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, has committed to using the New Mexico site. The firm plans to take passengers into space for $200,000 per ticket.

Flights will be suborbital, meaning ships will rocket up and return without orbiting the earth.

Virgin Galactic is starting its global enterprise in New Mexico, but the company hopes to build spaceports elsewhere, including the Middle East and northern latitudes of Scandinavian countries, where tourists could marvel at the aurora borealis from zero gravity.

Without the informed consent bill, New Mexico’s space outlook would have dimmed.

Virgin  Galactic president Will Whitehorn said in an e-mail that New Mexico economic development officials agreed to pursue the legislation when the state signed a lease agreement with his firm. Had the measure failed, he acknowledged Virgin Galactic would have considered other sites.

And while the space tourism effort has attracted widespread media attention, Landeene said the informed consent measure was critical to the spaceport’s long-term success, which he said is more keyed to companies that will use the site for research.