Once upon a time, when Britain was the launchpad for ships sent into the void that became Georgia, one rule was paramount.
Savannah and its coastline, founders said, were to be “free from that pest and scourge of mankind called lawyers.”
Generation after generation has struggled to quantify the spectacular failure of this policy. Now, nearly 300 years later, an appropriate yardstick has finally surfaced. In the state Capitol.
Like their forebears, Camden County officials on the Georgia coast want to launch ships into the void. Spaceships. Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, are racing through the General Assembly to help make it happen.
The legislation does not fund the construction of a giant Space Ark. Nor does it require the first inhabitable world that’s discovered be named Zell. It does not even mandate that alien life forms respect our borders and enter only when President Donald Trump gives the word.
Seriously. These pioneering, astronautical measures, Georgia’s first policy steps toward infinity and beyond, imagine the worst that can happen to a “space flight participant” — explosions on the launchpad, burning up on re-entry, dismemberment, emotional distress — and sets the rules for who can sue whom.
It’s an odd thing, to shoot for the stars by contemplating disaster.
“The bill is simple. It changes the burden of proof for passengers on a rocket ship before they can recover their damages if they’re injured or killed — from one of ordinary negligence to gross negligence,” said state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, the author of SB 46. “It’s a signal to the industry that your state is open for business.”
Frankly, given that the real regulation of space vehicles is a federal task, there’s not much else a state Legislature can do to encourage the construction of a new Cape Canaveral on the Georgia coast.
And so lawmakers have applied tort reform to outer space with gusto. Too much gusto, according to some killjoys.
At a recent hearing on the spaceport bill before the House Judiciary Committee, a committee chock-full of lawyers, state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, pointed out that the language of the measure could grant extraordinary legal immunity to even the smallest enterprise associated with a launch effort.
The food truck that supplies rancid egg salad sandwiches, for instance.
“If we can take business from Florida, I’m willing to do that,” said state Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, the author of HB 1.
To be fair, much of space law is still in its theoretical phase. Legislators have had to improvise. Consider the waiver that a Georgia space passenger would be required to sign. It is included in the legislation — entirely in capital letters because it is important. In part:
I UNDERSTAND AND ACKNOWLEDGE THAT BY SIGNING THIS WARNING AND AGREEMENT, I HAVE EXPRESSLY ACCEPTED AND ASSUMED ALL RISKS AND RESPONSIBILITIES FOR INJURY, DEATH, AND OTHER LOSS THAT MAY RESULT FROM THE INHERENT RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH PARTICIPATION IN ANY SPACE FLIGHT ACTIVITIES.
That language may be familiar to some of you. “It is modeled after the Georgia Agritourism Equine Waiver,” Spencer told his colleagues.
That’s right. This tidbit of space law is patterned after the sheet of paper you sign before you haul your butt into the saddle at any horse stable in Georgia. Yee-haw.
One of these two spaceport bills is likely to make it to the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal. The dream of bringing high-paying engineering jobs to the coast is too tempting — and no state funds are involved. (Camden County has set aside $5 million for the project, which is aimed at private space companies.) Both measures have received committee approval. Ligon says SB 46 could make it to the Senate floor by next week.
But we would be remiss if we didn’t note substantial opposition to the effort, particularly among property owners beneath the launch trajectories.
They say that federal safety regulations require that 21 private homes on Little Cumberland Island and 17 on Cumberland Island would have to be evacuated for every blastoff. (Proponents of the spaceport disagree.)
Then there is the environmental impact on the Cumberland Island National Seashore. A federal study is due out in a few months. In a 2015 letter, the U.S. National Park Service raised a boatload of questions about the impact that rocket ship launches might have on the acreage.
But that letter is now a relic of the Obama administration, and we have not yet seen any Twitter messages from the new president that tell us what he thinks about private space travel.
Megan Desrosiers is the executive director of One Hundred Miles, a coastal environmental group that opposes both the spaceport and the legislation moving through the Capitol that would allow it.
But she does see the link between the two. “There’s a whole lot of risks associated with (a private spaceport). It’s the vibrations, it’s the smoke, it’s the fumes, the potential for a fuel spill,” Desrosiers said. “A private spaceport developer has to be willing to assume those risks, knowing that they’re going to be launching over an island that has private homes on it. And 60,000 tourists a year.”
The ink on HB 1 and SB 46 hasn’t dried yet. Improvements are still possible. We note, for instance, that the Camden County venture lacks a motto. A statement of high purpose that inspires and guides.
In the spirit of Georgia’s founding, we recommend a variation on a passage composed by Mr. Shakespeare: ”The first thing we do, let’s launch all the lawyers.”