SANTA FE (KRQE) - New Mexico's $209 million investment in Spaceport America is in jeopardy, unless lawmakers pass a crucial bill during the legislative session that began earlier this week.
"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 bill would give companies that manufacture, supply and build spacecraft immunity from lawsuits in the event something goes wrong except in cases of negligence. House Bill 49 and Senate Bill 63 have already been filed.
Under state law, only one company, Virgin Galactic, has been given immunity from lawsuits. Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at Spaceport America, a futuristic hangar built near Truth or Consequences. The company, owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, came to New Mexico more than six years ago with hope of embarking on the first commercial flights to space.
But George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's president and CEO, told KRQE News 13 the company may reassess its future at the spaceport if the Legislature does not expand liability to other companies.
"The state has said it doesn't want to keep putting money into the spaceport over time, so that sort of leaves us, which isn't really the vision that we signed up for," Whitesides said.
Virgin Galactic wants to have a booming spaceport with many companies launching from the hangar, Whitesides said.
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.
Texas, Florida, Virginia and Colorado already provide the liability waiver, and other space-travel companies besides Virgin Galactic likely would not do business in New Mexico without protection under state law.
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."
Gardner said the biggest opponents of the bill have been trial lawyers.
Maestas, who is an attorney and an advocate of the spaceport, said he understands the struggle.
"Being able to sue somebody who wrongs you is as American as apple pie," Maestas said. "If someone blows up in space, they should be allowed to go to the courts, if in fact it's somebody's fault that they blew up in space."
But Maestas said Virgin Galactic's ultimatum has given the Legislature little choice but to pass the bills.
Whitesides said the state's investment is on the line this legislative session.
"The state has made a $200 million investment in commercial space, and it's going to be very difficult to leverage that investment -- get all the jobs that are potential with that investment -- without this legislation," he said.
The 2 1/2-hour flight to space costs about $200,000. So far, more than 500 people have signed up. If the bills are passed, the first flight is still about a year away.
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