12 Dec 2021

Government space launch moving forward, despite officials' concerns

6:23 pm on 12 December 2021

A ministerial announcement for a new space centre in Canterbury appears to have jumped the gun, with government officials later confirming the development of aerospace facilities was not certain.

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Minister Megan Woods announced the project in June. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In June, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods published a media release confirming a joint environmental and aerospace project would "lift off" on the Kaitōrete Spit.

She said Project Tāwhaki, a partnership between Te Taumutu Rūnanga and Wairewa Rūnanga and the Crown, would develop aerospace research and development facilities, including a space launch, which would net about $300 million a year, in 10 years' time.

"Suitable sites for a space launch and aerospace testing facilities are scarce globally and this long finger of land along the coast of Canterbury is an ideal location. I'm delighted that we can come together in partnership with Kaitōrete Limited to achieve collective conservation, cultural and economic wins," Woods said.

However in a briefing to Transport Minister Michael Wood two weeks later, officials were not sure any activities would be getting off the ground.

"MBIE officials have informed us that development of aerospace facilities is not certain.

"The actual impact of Project Tāwhaki would depend on the exact aerospace activities that will be performed from the location. MBIE officials have emphasised that no decisions have been made yet on the type and frequency of potential activities," officials said.

"Due to commercial sensitivities, the ministry and the [Civil Aviation Authority] were only informed of Project Tāwhaki two days before its announcement, which limited opportunities for officials to provide input on the potential impacts of the project on aviation."

Officials added the airspace required could disrupt flights in and out of Christchurch Airport, and make the flight paths inefficient.

However Woods said despite transport officials not being involved, due diligence had been completed.

"MBIE worked closely with Treasury, and commissioned three independent assessments of the potential for aerospace, and R&D at Kaitōrete, and more broadly the opportunities for New Zealand, before I signed the Joint Venture agreement."

"These looked at an array of launch development opportunities from small to large."

She said since that briefing in June there had been significant progress on the project with an initial test site identified on 100 hectares of land for local aerospace companies to carry out small-scale trials early in the new year.

Ministry of Transport Strategic Policy and Innovation manager Richard Cross said the project was still in the early stages.

"The specific aerospace activities that would take place on Kaitōrete Spit haven't been confirmed - though the aspirations for aerospace activity there have been made clear to us."

The government has contributed $16 million to secure the land, with the government and the Rūnanga each owning 50 percent shares in the land and project.

Environmental rehabilitation work on Kaitōrete Spit would get underway almost immediately, beginning with a fencing programme, limiting farming on certain parts of the land, and planting 5,000 native plants specifically from the area.