Rocket Lab's Peter Beck defends contracts with US military, says space industry 'intertwined' with defence

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck has defended the company's contracts with the US military, saying the space industry is "very, very intertwined with defence".

He's flatly denying claims they've been putting satellites into orbit which could be used to "hurt people", telling The AM Show on Thursday "the mower comes out with the tall poppies". 

"From day one we've always been very clear, but we've also been very clear about what we will do and what we don't do… we're certainly not going to launch weapons or anything that damages the environment or goes and hurts people. But the reality is in the space industry it's very, very intertwined with defence."

In March protesters opposed Rocket Lab's 'They Go Up So Fast' launch of a satellite called Gunsmoke-J, which the company described as "an experimental 3U CubeSat that will test technologies that support development of new capabilities for the US Army". 

Minister for Economic Development Stuart Nash, who has veto power over any space launch from New Zealand soil, gave it the go-ahead. 

"Unfortunately our outer space legislation has so many gaps and grey areas foreign military powers are literally launching rockets through it," Green MP Teanau Tuiono said in June. Auckland Peace Action claimed the satellite - and others Rocket Lab has put into orbit - could be used for "communications with troops, surveillance and reconnaissance, intercepting information or spying, and targeting weapons, like drones, bombs, and also nuclear weapons".

It's against New Zealand law to help "any person to manufacture, acquire, possess, or have control over any nuclear explosive device", and any launch has to be in New Zealand's national interest - what that means exactly is left to the Minister for Economic Development. 

Cabinet says payloads with the "intended end use of harming, interfering with, or destroying other spacecraft, or space systems on Earth" are banned, as are those "with the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to Government policy" or likely to cause "serious or irreversible harm to the environment".

New Zealand is part of the 'Five Eyes' surveillance network with the US. 

Peter Beck.
Peter Beck. Photo credit: The AM Show

Beck said the US military satellite on the 'They Go Up So Fast' launch was "a research and development payload for communications".

"It was about the size of a loaf of bread and it was to test various communications. You can spin whichever way you want to spin on any of this stuff. New Zealand as a country, we have the most robust space licensing process in the world. It's the only one that I know of in the world that requires a minister to sign off every single payload." 

Rocket Lab has never kept its work with the US military a secret, but they have "also been very clear about what we will do and what we don't do", Beck said.

"At the end of the day, if you walk into Rocket Lab's building, the first sign you read is, 'We go to space to improve life on Earth'. That's the mandate of the company and what we do. There's always going to be people who don't necessarily agree with what you do and that's called a democracy and that's fine."

Beck pointed to GPS as a technology developed and run by the US military that many of us take for granted.

"I got here by my car, plugged into Google, the friendly little voice got me here - that's all GPS satellites which are owned and operated by the US Defence Force. Military and defence is very, very intertwined with everything we do every day in space." 

Stuart Nash.
Stuart Nash. Photo credit: Getty Images

Elsewhere in the interview, Beck talked up the company's education efforts in Kiwi schools, saying it's inspiring youngsters to take an interest in 'STEM' subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

"I went to one school and the kids had to dress up as what they wanted to be when they grew up… and there were a lot of kids dressed up as their parents and a disproportionate number of firefighters and those kinds of things. Not one single scientist, engineer or entrepreneur.

"I went up there and we talked about the rocket and we talked about how we go to space and showed lots of videos and stuff. I came back the next year and did the same thing and there were three kids there in white lab coats with clipboards - and one of them was a girl. So it works."

Rocket Lab is set to list on the NASDAQ stock exchange later this year for an estimated value of $4.1 billion.