Minister in charge of space launches, Stuart Nash, dismisses 'confused' Greens Party's Rocket Lab fears

The minister who signs off on space launches has dismissed the Green Party's fears that Rocket Lab is launching potentially dangerous military hardware into space. 

"I think they're slightly confused about what Rocket Lab is doing," Regional Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash told Newshub after Green MP Teanau Tuiono submitted a Member's Bill to change the law governing space launches

Tuiono's proposed law change would amend the Outer Space and High Altitude Activities Act to prohibit the launching of military hardware into space from New Zealand. He mentioned Rocket Lab, which often launches hardware from Mahia Peninsula on behalf of the US military. 

The current law allows the Minister for Regional Economic Development to veto a launch if it's not in the country's national interest, but it doesn't define what that might be. 

"Unfortunately, our outer space legislation has so many gaps and grey areas, foreign military powers are literally launching rockets through it," Tuiono said as he announced his legislation earlier this week. 

But Nash told Newshub the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) deep dives into each space launch application before it goes to him for approval. Nash then ensures the launch aligns with New Zealand's interests. 

"The piece of legislation that governs what can and can't go up is very strict around this. It can't be outside of New Zealand's interests and there is a very robust process that MBIE undertakes before it presents anything to me to sign-off payloads that go into space," Nash said. 

"The US Army possibly has one of the largest R&D [research and development] budgets in the world. It is incredibly well-funded. Not everything it does is related to war. But again, if anything was to go up into space that contravened the legislation that governs what we can and can't do... it just does not happen.

Regional Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash.
Regional Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash. Photo credit: Getty

"I know that MBIE does dig very deeply into every single application just to make sure that there is no grey area here, that we are very clear that what we are sending up into space is in our national interest, is not compromising our global brands, is not contravening our nuclear-free stance, in any way, shape or form."

Rocket Lab, a US-owned but New Zealand-based company estimated to be worth more than US$1.2 billion, has become a leader in a niche market of small rocket services provided by private companies.

A launch in March included a prototype satellite called Gunsmoke-J, which collects targeting data for US military operations. Nash allowed the launch to proceed, despite concerns it could help with nuclear weapons targeting, which could be in breach of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987. 

"The US military satellites launched by Rocket Lab can control activity such as communications with troops, surveillance and reconnaissance, intercepting information or spying, and targeting weapons, like drones, bombs, and also nuclear weapons," says Auckland Peace Action spokesperson Eliana Darroch. 

"If we send these satellites into space with US military capacities, we are complicit in the drone and precision bombings and other acts of warfare which the United States does."

She says as a proud nuclear-free country that was instrumental in the 2017 international treaty banning nuclear weapons, launching satellites capable of controlling nuclear weapons is unacceptable.

Green MP Teanau Tuiono.
Green MP Teanau Tuiono. Photo credit: Facebook

But Rocket Lab has denied it has anything to do with weapons.

"Every single satellite payload must be permitted under this law by the New Zealand Space Agency, associated agencies, and the responsible minister. It is not permissible to launch weapons, nuclear or conventional, under this legislation," a spokesperson told Newshub. 

Nash said he wouldn't sign off on a payload if he had any concerns. 

"What happens is they go through an MBIE process so every paper I get, I get from MBIE, and they ask me to sign off the payload. It goes through the rules and regulations that govern this very clearly. They have done all their work to ensure that nothing is contravened, and I read these. If there was ever any grey area, I wouldn't sign it off," he said. 

"We're very clear on this that I am the signing authority, but I expect every single payload to absolutely meet the requirements of the legislation. "

A journalist investigating Rocket Lab's ties to the US military told The AM Show it's not an "evil company", but some Kiwis would be "uneasy" if they knew what it was putting into orbit.

"There's the Kiwi success story, which we're all really familiar with, but it's also a major contractor for the US military," freelance journalist Ollie Neas said.  

"It's worked with the US military for over a decade, and now it's regularly launching satellites into orbit for US military and intelligence agencies. I think there's eight separate missions, and some of those have carried numerous satellites. Rocket Lab's estimation is that about 30 percent of its business is for US defence agencies."