Editorial: Space flight industry needs liability bill

Wayne Hale understands as well as anyone both the potential for commercial space flight and the obstacles to success.

Hale is a former program manager for the space shuttle program. He was shuttle flight director for 40 shuttle missions, and was deputy associate administrator of strategic partnerships in NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate when he retired in 2010. He is now a consultant for a private aerospace services company in Colorado.

During his keynote speech Tuesday at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, Hale stressed the importance of legislation to provide limited liability protection to parts suppliers at Spaceport America if we are to successfully compete with other states in the still-developing industry of commercial space flight.

"The most important thing we can do is remind (legislators) the state has made this huge investment," Hale said. "If you're not careful, you can lose that business to states that have friendlier laws."

The Legislature has passed an informed consent law providing liability protection for Virgin Galactic, which will be the anchor tenant at Spaceport America. But, without similar protections for parts suppliers, it is feared the spaceport will not be able to attract other space-related businesses needed for it to reach its full potential.

It is disappointing that a liability protection bill was killed last year in House and Senate committees that did not have a single member from Dona Ana or Sierra counties. Sen. Mary Kay Papen, sponsor of the bill, said she has legislation already prepared for the upcoming session in January. And Gov. Susana Martinez has been a strong supporter of the bill.

It is our hope that lawmakers have taken the time since last year's session to better educate themselves on this bill, and its importance in protecting the state's investment in the spaceport.

As Hale pointed out, other states have already passed liability protection, and are using that advantage in the fierce competition to attract space-related firms. We are not suggesting there be blanket immunity that would protect companies even in cases of gross negligence. We appreciate that in such cases people should have the right to seek damages in a court of law. But in a fledgling industry where some degree of risk will always be involved, there needs to be a balance.

Instead of merely killing the bill, we would urge lawmakers — especially those with law degrees — to work with Papen on a compromise that will allow individual legal protection while not putting the state at a competitive disadvantage.

— Las Cruces Sun-News

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