Spaceport America may be facing an undignified closing before it's long awaited and touted opening! Principally, because Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise geared to space tourism program has still not launched its inaugural sub-orbital flight, and ultimately may never activate its innovative idea.
The reason why comes down to a basic matter of INFORMED CONSENT--actually a big matter also affecting other industries concerned with risk and liability factors. And rightly so.
To explain this conundrum (because we of the New Mexico STAR Group cannot fathom why the State of New Mexico has put the kibosh on a lucrative aerospace operation that is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars), let us begin with this singular term "informed consent" and explain the dynamics of its implication.
First, the Spaceport has thus far been entirely funded by New Mexico's taxpayers. Over $200M USD has been poured into this project, first promoted by the former governor, Bill Richardson, and now backed by the current governor, Susana Martinez. Other than the initial costs, this is the good news.
The bad news is state legislators influenced by so-called "trial lawyers" will not back the plan based on an insurance matter under the informed consent designate. Meanwhile, there are currently nine similar spaceports planned for the United States, with five already setup for operations: Colorado, California, Texas, Florida and New Mexico. Other than Branson's aerospace enterprise, two others, RocketCrafters and SpaceX have passed over the New Mexico Spaceport operation, preferring other locales. (Respectfully, Titusville, Florida and Brownsville, Texas).
The next question is obvious: Why would the State of New Mexico, recently declared the lowest income-producing state in America, pass up an opportunity that could easily generate millions of dollars per annum? The reason is based on State Legislators to pass laws that would exempt spacecraft suppliers from liability for passengers, that is, should any spacecraft launch and be destroyed. Although this liability clause makes sense to some people, to others it makes no sense whatsoever, simply because informed consent is not a license for industries to do as they damn well please, and come whatever risk and liability happens, a responsibility to safety (for consumers) still exists.
Consider the ski industry, as an example, where one purchases a lift ticket, and the agreement between the skier and the ski resort is a non-liability clause, should the skier be injured (or worse) in an accident. Thus, skiers cannot sue the ski resort because of the accident.
The informed consent clause, as it applies to the Spaceport, does not mean or insinuate the aerospace charter company offering space flights, or carriers and supplies that feed its industry, are not exempt from damage and all related catastrophic events on the ground, not even exempt from gross negligence. Such costs contributed by any phase of the Spaceport's operation, essentially the contractor offering space flights, will, in fact, be covered. The stipulation is the fact informed consent implies lawsuits cannot be submitted in the event of a catastrophic incident on the ground or while in flight.
Interestingly, when the State of New Mexico passed legislation for the development of Spaceport America (hereafter, SA), which was intended as a partnership with Virgin Galactic, legislators passed a law to exempt Branson's enterprise through 2018, but not other instrumental facets for its industry (i.e., parts suppliers). Meanwhile, other space port operations (Texas, Florida, Colorado and Virginia) decided to grant a permanent liability exemption for all carriers and suppliers to their respective operations.
Thus, the reason other potential space port operators decided not to base their operations in the so-called Land of Enchantment, which some might think attaching negation to the noun is really more the case: Land of Disenchantment! Another way to say it is State Legislators influenced by trial lawyers on this matter are utterly obtuse. Millions of dollars of potential annual revenue are literally going up in smoke and flames because there likely will be no liftoff for the Spaceport until this legal matter is settled and New Mexico starts to think more competitively.
What about the 20-year lease Virgin Galactic had signed with the State of New Mexico to operate its alleged commercial space tourism enterprise? According to Jeri Clausing, the API Supervisor based out of Albuquerque, lease payments and user fees were expected to generate about a quarter billion dollars (and more). If Richard Branson decides to go the way of Space X, et al., there goes a lot of money to another state.
And not just the Spaceport loses on this likely outcome, but think of all the feeder industries already in place--hotels, restaurants, commercial tour operators, van, coach and taxi drivers--these people and many others also will lose valuable income. Lest it go unsaid, people in this state vitally need income.
There are also other advantages to aerospace operations based out of the Spaceport. For instance, education, technological and research based on myriad industries that make space travel and operations a truly 21st-Century endeavor that essentially has no limits given the scope of such endeavors.
As far as safety factors go, consider another advantage of space operations in this remove southern location of the state: a wide-open territory where human development (cities and towns) and industries do not crowd the turf of the regional landscape. Thus, should the worst scenario happen, chances of loss of human life and property damage is exceedingly rare.
The bottom line: There has been a substantially large investment in Spaceport America and a change in New Mexico's liability law is requisite if the Spaceport is deemed a viable and new asset to boosting economy, jobs, and myriad spinoff opportunities based on the broader scope and ideal of aerospace. If citizens do not take an active role in this matter, that is, to convince State Legislators the Spaceport is not only an incentive enterprise that will add an immense amount of revenue to the state's coffers, but also put us on a space exploration map for all time.
True, New Mexico is the birthplace for atomic energy, but unlike its questionable fame (by some people's estimates, questionable), aerospace in all its facets takes Neil Armstrong's "One giant step for mankind" to a whole level that can take all of us to a whole new level. By holding Virgin Galactic and other aerospace industries hostage to an outmoded informed consent standard we in this state will not be part of such an epic adventure.
Not only revenue and fame will be lost, but also pride in the fact the Spaceport was likely the first novel proposal of its kind for the United States. Moreover, some 1,000 New Mexicans who have already been employed in helping create this aerospace locale will not profit from any future potential monetary reward. Neither will anyone else. Spaceport America very well may be the biggest boondoggle this state has ever seen!
Dr. Rich Holtzin
P.S.: Please consider joining the Save Our Spaceport Coalition. They are working hard for a New Mexico that dares to reach for the stars!