SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal to help New Mexico develop a commercial space travel industry is on a glide path to becoming law.
The House unanimously approved the measure on Thursday to limit the liability of spacecraft manufacturers and their suppliers.
The legislation is considered critical for ensuring that British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic follows through on plans to fly tourists into space from a nearly complete spaceport in southern New Mexico, which has cost taxpayers more than $200 million.
"I see this as a stepping stone to broaden space flight activities ... not only for New Mexico but for the entire country," said Rep. James White, an Albuquerque Republican.
"There may be time when we launch spacecraft from here with passengers and land them within minutes on the other side of the world," he said.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is backing the legislation. A separate but identical bill has passed the Senate. The legislation will go to the governor for her signature once the two chambers pass the same bill. The House and Senate often approve their own versions of legislation initially and later pass a duplicate bill sponsored by a member from the other chamber. That allows more lawmakers to claim credit for successful legislation.
A 2010 law protects Virgin Galactic, as a space travel operator, from being sued in most cases by passengers or their families if there is an accident during a flight. However, the legislation will extend liability limitations to suppliers and manufacturers of spacecraft and their components.
The limitations on lawsuits will apply only to passengers — not to people and property on the ground.
The bill has raced through the Legislature without opposition after Virgin Galactic and trial lawyers agreed on the scope of the legal protections and a provision that requires companies to carry $1 million in insurance to qualify for the liability protections.
Other states, including Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Texas, have eased their liability laws as a possible incentive for developing commercial space travel industries.
New Mexico lawmakers said the expanded liability shield was necessary to attract more companies to New Mexico's spaceport, particularly businesses that will provide goods and services for Virgin Galactic.
"We need other tenants there to make this really a viable enterprise," White said of Spaceport America, which is about 45 miles from Las Cruces and 200 miles from Albuquerque.
Rep. Bill McCamley, a Las Cruces Democrat, said the spaceport can boost the state's economy and provide high-paying jobs for New Mexicans, who otherwise might leave the state to find work in science, technology and engineering.
"This is something that southern New Mexico absolutely has to have," he said.
Rep. Debbie Rodella, an Espanola Democrat, expressed concerns that Virgin Galactic might leave New Mexico in the future if it's offered a better deal to use a spaceport in another state or overseas.
"I hope they're committed to staying in New Mexico because the citizens of New Mexico have invested a great deal of money in building that facility for them," she said.
White said, "Certainly Virgin Galactic has got a lot of opportunities but we've built a spaceport here designed uniquely for them. They're not going to leave anytime soon."
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