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“The issue is informed consent legislation,” said Truth or Consequences Mayor John Mulcahy. “We need to get that passed.”

Companies make no secret of the fact that the liability laws have played a role in their decision to go elsewhere. But they also cite Spaceport America’s remote location _45 miles from Las Cruces and 200 miles from Albuquerque _ and a failure by the state to offer competitive incentives as factors.

“We worked with (former Gov. Bill) Richardson’s people as well as (Gov. Susana) Martinez,” Nelson said. “They are all fine. They have been great. But they couldn’t deliver the package that was necessary to get across the goal line.”

Spaceport’s success is tied largely to Virgin Galactic, which signed a 20-year lease to operate its commercial space tourism business from the site. Over the next two decades, the company’s lease payments and user fees are expected to generate $250 million and more. But the terms of the lease or what penalties might be imposed if Branson pulls out are not publicly known. And the facility was planned with the idea that at least one new major tenant would move in by 2016.

“We are so happy we have Virgin Galactic as anchors,” said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Space Authority, which is lobbying lawmakers to approve informed consent. “But we want to attract more tenants. … I think this is really a critical piece of legislation that New Mexico has to have.”

Nelson says his company hasn’t ruled out one day flying his Lynx aircraft in New Mexico. But he says the legislature’s wavering on the liability exemptions “sends a message that we cannot expect a consistent response,” he said.

Meantime, Branson’s estimate for a first manned flight has been pushed back until late 2013 at the earliest. And questions remain about the facility’s tourism draw.

Tourism and Spaceport officials have estimated as many as 200,000 people a year would visit the futuristic center. Branson told a national hotel conference in 2011 that he might put one of his still to be developed Virgin hotels in the area. But there has been no further word on that hotel, or others that have been rumored to cater to the space crowd.

Ignatiev estimates it will be 10 years before the commercial space business really takes off, “And I don’t know how many states or commercial entities can sit around for 10 years and wait for business to show up. They are going to have a problem staying viable.”

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