There is a Maori proverb: We are all in this canoe together. It’s a fitting saying for New Zealand. Thousands of miles from the nearest continent and at the edge of the yawning Pacific Ocean, the island nation embraces a certain self-reliance, expressed locally as a “Number 8 wire” mentality. It is a reference to the steel wire that was once used widely on farms but was also used creatively to make or keep up any number of things, leading to a broader can-do ethos of innovating solutions with whatever tools are on hand. It is this culture of sharing the canoe and cutting one’s own path that shaped New Zealand’s space story in unique ways. Indeed, no other country does space quite like New Zealand.
Letting Business Lead the Way
In places like the United States and the European Union, large government space agencies act as the vanguard for space access, generating demand for space-related goods in the marketplace while also encouraging businesses to commercialize technologies and products developed for space.
This is not how New Zealand’s space ecosystem works. Instead, the private sector leads the way, with the New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA) facilitating and supporting commercial success. This approach is partly a result of the country’s neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and ‘90s, during which markets were deregulated, tariffs were removed, and foreign investment was championed. The reforms transformed the country’s political and economic landscape and brought New Zealand into the world economy.
Tim Searle, a senior policy advisor at the NZSA, said: “The New Zealand space sector has been led by the development of a commercial industry in the country rather than a government decision to start one. This allows us to be responsive to the needs of the sector. In this respect, New Zealand is unique, but the process is replicable if you have the entrepreneurs and a fertile ecosystem to make it happen.”
Through this lens, it follows that one of the primary catalysts for New Zealand’s recent and rapid ascension in the global space community was the founding and growth of Rocket Lab. It was largely that company’s space ambition that prompted the New Zealand government to take a business-first approach and establish legislation and regulation to promote safe domestic launch endeavors. In 2016, the country signed the Technology Safeguards Agreement with the United States, opening the country to the U.S. space market, and in 2017, it enacted the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act, along with a regulatory regime covering licenses and permits.
Today, the NZSA sits within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). The agency plays a vital role in fostering commercial space activities, although it also has an important role in international collaboration, such as by signing NASA’s Artemis Accords, and promoting space-focused education. Still, the main actors in New Zealand’s space story are the Number 8 wire innovators growing a commercial space community at a breathtaking pace.
The Tug and Pull of the Global Space Ecosystem
In 2019, New Zealand’s space ecosystem contributed $1.69 billion to the national economy, directly employing some 5,000 people, with direct and indirect effects creating 12,000 jobs total, according to a Deloitte report conducted for the MBIE. These are striking figures for a nation whose GDP was $204.9 billion in 2018, with a labor force of just 2.6 million people.
To be sure, the star of the show is Rocket Lab. Founded in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company has notched a series of successes with launch systems primarily suited for placing small satellites in orbit. Today, it bills itself as an end-to-end space company. Its flagship rocket Electron is proven, and it will soon send Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft on a journey to the Moon. In support of NASA’s Artemis program, Photon will place Advanced Space’s CubeSat, dubbed Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), into lunar orbit to test the stability of the orbit intended for NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway.
It is a striking success story with an obvious twist — Rocket Lab is an American company with a New Zealand subsidiary, not the other way around. It moved its registration from New Zealand in 2013. This is a prime example of one of the main challenges facing the New Zealand space community. The small size of the domestic market and the availability of a skilled workforce leads entrepreneurs to look abroad to grow their businesses. It is a curious irony that a nation regularly ranked by the World Bank as one of the easiest places to do business is faced with a challenge of retaining the companies that arise precisely for that reason.
“A recurring issue for New Zealand is brain drain and foreign takeovers,” said Dr. Nick Borroz, founder of Rotoiti, a space consultancy in New Zealand. “The fear is that it is hard to retain value-generating people here. This is a core concern for economic policymakers. As soon as people succeed, off they go. As soon as a firm becomes successful, it stops being Kiwi.”
Even as Borroz noted that “the standard narrative is there’s not enough financing,” he also pointed to the dozens of New Zealand companies and space-focused organizations delivering not just launch capabilities but all the components of a thriving space economy, including parts, materials, software and services that support space missions domestically and globally. As these companies grow, perhaps they will prove out workable approaches to retaining space companies and their workforces in-country.
While financing and market opportunity may be push factors for New Zealand companies to look abroad, one vital pull factor is a space-ready workforce.
Growing the Domestic Space Workforce
A robust space ecosystem depends on a skilled labor pool. It is not just scientists and engineers but also those working in business development, technology commercialization, supply chain management, education and a host of other areas. This is a challenge for large spacefaring nations, and it is perhaps even more so in New Zealand, which has fewer than 5 million residents.
“Our biggest challenge is exactly the same as everyone else’s biggest challenge, and that is talent,” said Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck during an interview at Space Foundation’s 37th Space Symposium. “Right now, all we’re doing is hiring off each other, and as an industry, we have to build that pipeline of talent to feed everything that is going on. We’re at the starting point of this inflection, and unless we can all feed talent to the inflection, everyone is going to miss their dates.”
With this awareness, Rocket Lab made investments in New Zealand schools and academic programs to promote interest in STEM fields and space specifically, and they weren’t alone. The NZSA also invested. It has offered grants for developing space educational resources. It established the New Zealand Space Scholarships program, and it also supports space-specific university programs, such as the Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute.
The public and private encouragement of space education and workforce development is percolating and yielding returns. According to Beck, there is a pipeline of space-ready talent supporting its New Zealand-based operations. Perhaps more important than satisfying immediate workforce needs is helping the next generation of space innovators find viable careers in New Zealand, rather than abroad.
Yen-Kai Chen is a recent graduate of the University of Auckland, where he earned a Master of Science studying biology in space. His interest in the subject matter came after he earned a bachelor’s degree in science and was encouraged to pursue his academic curiosity into how life functions in space environments. This led to a realization. He said: “This is a field that can be done in New Zealand, and I think it was a good achievement to get into the field without pre-existing expertise [in space subject matter].”
Chen noted how he had observed support from NZSA helping students access facilities and relationships that are essential to space education and research. As he said, “At the end of the day, at least here in New Zealand and particularly in the commercial sense, there’s a lot that goes toward sustainability because we have to make sure the field can sustain itself.”
Chen aspires to earn a Ph.D. and continue his research and work in his home country. He is an example of and a witness to the focused attention New Zealand’s public and private sectors have given to space education and workforce development. And while the next generation of New Zealand’s space professionals advance their country’s position in the global space ecosystem, they will also make valuable contributions to global space activities for the benefit of all people. The Maori proverb is apt. We are all in this canoe together.
Shelli Brunswick is chief operating officer of The Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based advocacy group.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.