N.Z.’s Nascent Space Industry Aims for Stars

WELLINGTON (Reuters) — The grassy plains on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, once home to cattle, have been transformed into a key aerospace facility for the Pacific nation as it looks to become a global hub for advanced aircraft and space exploration.

New Zealand is inviting aerospace firms from around the world to set up at the new Tawhaki National Aerospace Centre on the Kaitorete Spit, a 25 kilometer long and 3 kilometer wide coastal site.

The center, in which the government has to date invested 29.4 million New Zealand dollars (U.S.$17.97 million), is part of an ambitious plan to turn the country’s nascent aerospace sector into a significant contributor to the agriculturally dependent economy.

There is little air traffic over the spit, launches over water minimize risk from falling debris, and a latitude deep in the Southern Hemisphere makes it easier to place satellites in specific orbits.

“You cannot underestimate our location in the world and how that is an enormous advantage,” said Judith Collins, who became the country’s first space minister after the government was elected in October 2023.

Globally the space and aerospace industries are growing fast; there were 50% more commercial space launches in 2023 than a year earlier, according to the U.S. Space Foundation. Three industry experts said New Zealand’s location gives it a leg up as it tries to muscle deeper into the more than $600 billion global market.

The country hosted seven rocket launches last year, the fourth-most globally, all by the U.S.-listed and New Zealand-founded Rocket Lab. The success of the $2.07 billion company, which has launched 44 rockets in New Zealand since 2017, has helped develop a space technology sector that includes the likes of titanium 3D printer Zenith Technica.

But New Zealand is still a small player, even relative to its neighbors, with Australia’s space sector worth around 5 billion Australian dollars (U.S.$3.33 billion) annually and Japan’s worth $27 billion.

New Zealand’s space industry was worth roughly N.Z.$1.7 billion in 2019 — the latest data available — and the government wants to grow the aerospace industry to N.Z.$10 billion by 2030, offering a needed jolt to an economy that is in recession and struggling from weak productivity.

To do that, the government said ahead of being elected that it wants to reduce the regulatory burden for launches, testing and employment in the space sector.

New Zealand has signed several agreements to ease international collaboration, and in April, Collins met with NASA and U.S. Space Command officials to promote New Zealand.

A local government owns and is growing a satellite monitoring facility in the southernmost part of New Zealand for clients that include the European Space Agency.

To space and beyond

Tawhaki, a partnership between the government and local indigenous people, was chosen for its location near a main city and port on the east coast, so launches head off over the sea. At the moment, however, only advanced aircraft are being tested there.

“The reason Tawhaki was established was because of productivity. It was about how do we get more jobs, higher growth jobs, higher tech jobs, and start to think about land use in a different way,” said Linda Falwasser, the facility’s chief executive.

More than 5,000 New Zealanders were directly employed in the space sector in 2019, up from almost none fifteen years earlier. There are more than 20 firms in the country founded solely to provide space-related services, according to New Zealand consultancy SpaceBase.

“There are a wide range of space and advanced aerospace projects that are starting to kick along and creating a lot of jobs and a lot of value for New Zealand,” said Mark Rocket, president of Aerospace New Zealand and founder of Kea Aerospace, which uses Tawhaki for trials.

At Tawhaki, four companies, including Boeing subsidiary Wisk Aero, have publicized using the facility to test new technology; facility officials say that others are there too, but that they can’t discuss them for privacy reasons.

Wisk’s uncrewed aircraft successfully launched from Tawhaki late last year and flew into controlled airspace alongside a crewed aircraft in what is thought to be a commercial global first.

Falwasser said that her facility is negotiating with both German and Singaporean entities who are eager to use Tawhaki, and that she had just returned from a trade mission with the prime minister to Southeast Asia to drum up business.

“We’re not here to build a white elephant. We’re here to build or to engage on opportunities based on real demand,” she said. “Vertical orbital launch is our next step.”