As a youngster, I vividly remember lying in my bed at night and looking at the stars in the sky above my bedroom. I would lie and ponder over the enormity of the world, the overwhelming number of things that society can never know, and my own infinitesimally small and unimportant role in it all. Despite these dark and largely defeatist thoughts, I obviously made it through my youth and became sufficiently deluded to think that I can make a difference in my time on earth.
I moved on from thinking about the stars, and concentrated on things more earthly. Despite a period shared by most teenagers in the 80s when Tom Cruise and Top Gun (the original, obviously) inspired me to reach for the skies (if not the stars), I got my thrills from business, from firefighting and from tree planting rather than dreaming of being an astronaut.
Luckily for society, its future and its understanding of the universe, others remained excited by space and its opportunities. These people kept dreaming, despite at the time the fact that the only nations which could participate in the space race being the US and the former Soviet Union. Notwithstanding the barriers to their participation, these individuals continued to dream of Space, the final frontier.
Everyone in New Zealand will know of Peter Beck, former designer of dishwashers and now CEO of RocketLab. Beck’s entire life pointed towards his eventual destiny at RocketLab and Beck put New Zealand’s aerospace ambitions and opportunities on the map. Lesser known, however, is Beck’s seed funder at RocketLab, Mark Rocket. This is a guy who famously changed his surname by deed poll to better reflect his passion for space.
Rocket is something of an idealist when it comes to the opportunity of space to improve the world. Thus when RocketLab decided to pitch for Defense contracts, Rocket decided to check out and move on to other projects. In 2018 he founded Kea Aerospace. The Christchurch company produces the Atmos, a solar-powered, zero-emissions unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which will have the ability to capture aerial imagery and collect data from the stratosphere. Essentially the pitch is that imagery captured from the Stratosphere will deliver the high quality that plane-based imagery can offer, but with economics closer to what we get from satellites.
I was recently invited by Rocket to visit their Christchurch offices – and who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to geek out to the space suits and prototype aircraft on show there. But beyond showing off his company’s impressive developments, Rocket was keen to articulate his vision for New Zealand as an aerospace centre of excellence. While I met with Rocket due to voyeuristic desires to geek out at carbon fibre and rockets, I left with a deeper understanding of the aerospace opportunity for New Zealand.
According to a 2019 Deloitte report, the New Zealand space sector was worth close to $2B in the 2019 financial year and kept some 12,000 people employed. Alongside Rocketlab, the report gave examples such as he Xerra Earth Observation Institute based in Alexandra, which has plans to develop satellite data products to drive regional economic growth. Also highlighted was NASA’s super-pressure balloon programme launching from Wanaka in the South Island.

More interestingly, perhaps, than these big projects is the fact that aerospace is today characterized by a nice mix of early-stage startup entities as well as well-established companies. And unlike, for example, the software sector, Aerospace has an entire ecosystem of upstream and downstream opportunities – from manufacturing of hardware to University-based research and development to opportunities to run launch sites and testing centres from our shores.

In my home town of Christchurch, the list of organizations involved with the aerospace industry is huge. And while there is the somewhat inexplicable inclusion of a coffee roasting company in there, the list is impressive. Indeed, ChristchurchNZ, the region’s Economic Development Agency has identified aerospace as one of its big opportunities. Despite the fact that identification by an EDA can sometimes be a bit of a guarantee of failure, it seems that, in the case of aerospace, they’ve identified something with very real potential.

There is no single answer to New Zealand’s economic malaise – heaven knows we’ve tried with dairy, with kiwifruit and with inviting well-heeled tourists to our shores. So while aerospace isn’t the total panacea, it seems it can have a very important part to play. Now where’s my space suit?

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy is his go-to space read.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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