Is Sierra Nevada Spaceport America’s next tenant?

The New Mexico legislature is currently considering updated legislation to provide spaceflight liability indemnification, similar to what exists in several other states, including Florida, Texas, and Virginia. Senate Bill 3 would require spaceflight operators to have participants sign waivers; the company is then protected except in the case of “an act or omission that constitutes gross negligence” or if it intentionally injures the participant. This legislation updates existing law, passed in 2010, specifically including suppliers of components for those systems.

In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said that the legislation would not affect Virgin’s plans to operate from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. However, he said, passage of the bill could encourage other companies to locate operations there. One of those, he said, is Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is developing the Dream Chaser spaceplane and is one of four companies with funded Commercial Crew Development agreements with NASA. “Whitesides said that Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp., which has a $100 million federal contract to develop a prototype spacecraft, would consider locating at the spaceport if the bill passes,” the article states.

A fiscal impact report for the bill confirms this. “Two separate potential tenants at Spaceport America, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Rocket Crafters, Inc, have both recently indicated an unwillingness to move to New Mexico and operate from Spaceport America, absent this legislation,” it states. (Rocket Crafters is a relatively new and little-known company that has proposed developing a suborbital spaceplane.)

What would Sierra Nevada do at Spaceport America? Its Dream Chaser vehicle is designed to launch atop expendable rockets like the Atlas 5 that don’t operate from Spaceport America. However, the spaceport’s runway could serve as a landing site, although landing at a site other than the Kennedy Space Center could introduce some operational inefficiencies since they’ll have to ferry the vehicle back to Cape Canaveral. Spaceport America could also serve as a test site for captive carry and glide tests of the Dream Chaser; in such a scenario, though, it’s not clear it would need the enhanced liability legislation since it will not be carrying spaceflight participants.

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