Space Matters to Kiwis and NZ Inc

Opinion - by Joseph Mooney MP, Spokesperson for Space

We are seeing the emergence in New Zealand of a new globally significant and world-leading high-tech sector in Space.  Space as an economic enabler, offers unique opportunities to deliver economic benefits and high-value jobs not only in our major cities but also in regional New Zealand.

As we celebrated International Moon Day on July 20 this year, it was fifty-three years ago in 1969 that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon.  

Many of our ancestors travelled to these islands guided by the stars. In 2018, New Zealand became only the 11th country in the world to send a rocket into orbit. Fast forward to 2022, and New Zealand has become the fourth most frequent launcher on the planet. This year marked our first nationwide public holiday Matariki celebrating our historical connection to the stars.

It is incredible that only four years after New Zealand first sent a rocket into orbit, NASA chose to launch a spacecraft from New Zealand to the Moon.  I was at RocketLab Mission Control when they launched the CAPSTONE Minisat spacecraft.  It is headed for the Moon as part of the Artemis project by NASA that aims to return humanity to the Moon, land the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon, and from there send humans to Mars.

I also had the privilege of being on board the last mission to New Zealand by the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) aircraft, a flying observatory as it flew towards Antarctica.  It was fascinating to see the complex mission in action and the passion of everyone involved as they looked 1,000 light-years across the Universe at things like "star nurseries".  Past SOFIA missions have seen the discovery of water on the sunlit surface of the Moon and the Universe's first type of molecule called the Helium Hydride.

On both occasions, I was reminded of just how far New Zealand has come as a world-leading space-faring nation, and the huge potential for our country to make the most of the opportunity. 

Space as an economic enabler

The Space industry in New Zealand is already fully operational, productive and developing fast.  

Over the last twenty years, I have observed with close interest the birth and development of what is called "New Space". Peter Diamandis established a space competition called the Ansari X Prize, offering a $10 million prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft into Space twice within two weeks. That was won in 2004 and has stimulated the "New Space" industry, which is the commercialisation of the Space sector.  

NZ has been quick out of the blocks to build a New Space industry from scratch and rapidly become a leading nation in this sector.  According to an MBIE report in November 2019, the New Zealand Space sector was already worth $1.75 billion. Some say it is already worth more than the wine industry in New Zealand.  Space directly supports an estimated 5,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) roles and indirectly supports 12,000 FTE jobs.

Space is rapidly becoming a key industry internationally too, as countries increasingly understand its significance. 

In the United States, Space is considered of such importance that the National Space Council is chaired by the Vice-President and includes the Secretaries of State, Agriculture, Defense, Labour, Transportation, Energy and Education, as well as the Assistant to the National Climate Advisor and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Interestingly, the National Party is currently the only political party in New Zealand that has a Spokesperson for Space.

As that Spokesperson, I believe in the opportunities that technology, science and Space hold for a better New Zealand and the benefit of our daily lives.  I am regularly engaging with industry leaders, scientists and academics both in New Zealand and Australia to hear more about their lessons learnt and ideas for Space. 

How does Space benefit us?

Space capabilities provide critical data, products and services that drive innovation worldwide. They advance our understanding of the Earth, the Universe, and humanity, create good jobs and economic activity, enhance our health and well-being, and inspire us to pursue our dreams. 

Data from satellites provide services that underpin many of the daily conveniences Kiwis have come to expect in banking, telecommunications, security, transport and climate change monitoring. Services like internet access, GPS connections, weather forecasting, and emergency management to track large fires, to name a few. 

The agriculture industry benefits from Space technological advancements that allow farmers to monitor their cows' movements and crops' health through apps that rely on satellite data, thereby increasing productivity while reducing their environmental footprint.

Satellite data also offers the opportunity to be a game changer for how New Zealand manages one of the world’s largest exclusive economic zones, as well as our responsibility for one of the world’s largest search and rescue areas spanning 30 million square kilometres from Antarctica almost to the Equator.  We are a small country with limited resources and can only send out a small number of planes and boats to monitor the oceans that surround us. Low earth orbit satellites are an increasingly cost-efficient technological enabler which can provide a data-rich oversight of these zones.

Earth's environment and atmosphere, that 'thin blue line' is a precious commodity which must be monitored and protected.  Earth observation from space captures meteorological data enabling better management of our planet's environment.  Space technology can help our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet our international obligations around global warming and climate change.

Leveraging our Kiwi ingenuity 

New Zealand is already a leader in technology. We have a proud tradition of punching above our weight, from our famous no.8 wire mentality to our sports teams, to Ernest Rutherford the Kiwi scientist who split the atom. 

It was a Kiwi that invented the electric fence. Today, one merely needs to tap an app on your phone, and cows stay in their paddock solely because of a virtual, invisible fence that works through a satellite in the sky, another Kiwi invention.

We must ensure that our decision-makers now recognize that ingenuity and potential with a regulatory framework that supports and leverages our unique position.

Leading the way

Space offers opportunities for both urban and regional New Zealand.

For example, in the South Island Space Operations New Zealand provides ground communications support for launches and satellite missions from its Invercargill and Awarua facilities near Bluff. It was one of the ground stations that supported the recent CAPSTONE launch.

The Xerra Earth Observation Institute in Central Otago has plans to develop satellite data products to drive regional economic growth.  NASA first started launching super-pressure balloons from Wanaka as far back as 2015.

Christchurch is home to a burgeoning space industry with notable players such as Dawn Aerospace, who have developed green propulsion systems for small satellites, and are developing a new aircraft that could revolutionize access to Space with a reusable vehicle that can take off and land from standard airports. Kea Aerospace is building solar-powered, remotely piloted aircraft that will fly for months at a time in the stratosphere. 

And, of course, Southland-born and raised Peter Beck founded RocketLab pioneering New Zealand's ascent to Space.  The business is growing rapidly with its manufacturing facilities in Auckland and the world’s first and only private orbital launch site in northern Hawkes Bay.

Reviewing what is working and what is not

The challenge will be maintaining a peaceful use of Space as the resource becomes more contested.  New Zealand is already known and respected for its global diplomacy. Our unique launch capacity gives us an ideal opportunity to contribute to the rules and norms that can facilitate the peaceful development of Space. 

The Government is reviewing the operation and effectiveness of the law controlling New Zealand's space commercial space activities, the Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Act (OSHAA Act) that came into being in 2017.  

A separate study on broader space policy issues with a public consultation process later this year will ask questions about "the peaceful, sustainable and responsible uses of space and what this means for space activity in New Zealand, and the recognition of Māori interests in space."

I hope the process will also explore initiatives for maximizing the enormous commercial potential and advantage New Zealand already has to be a game-changer on the global space industry stage.

The role of universities and other training institutions in developing the future space workforce is critically important too. When Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Space Institute in Auckland, joined me on a Facebook Live broadcast recently, his passion for creating opportunities for future leaders in the space industry was inspiring. 

It reinforced the importance of supporting stem subjects like science and technology at school and beyond, and the role of Space in inspiring children to engage and develop an interest in STEM subjects from a young age. We must invest more in science and technology than we have in the past, as that is the world's future.

Now is the time for a cohesive action plan, working with the industry and educational facilities to develop a roadmap outlining our strategic direction to support the Space sector in New Zealand.

Why should we invest in Space, some may ask?  The short answer is “Because Space matters to Kiwis”.  The opportunities for NZ Inc to prosper are limitless.