Rocket Lab not 'evil', but Kiwis right to feel 'uneasy' about US military ties - journalist

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

Rocket Lab started in New Zealand and launches from here, but is now technically an American-based company  - it's even in the name of its website, Like other US space companies, it has contracts with the superpower's military and intelligence agencies.

"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 told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

"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 about 30 percent of its business is for US defence agencies."

The law allows the Minister for Economic Development - currently Stuart Nash - 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," said Green MP Teanau Tuiono, who has submitted a Member's Bill to patch it up. 

"The Government has a responsibility to make sure technologies sent into orbit from New Zealand soil do not assist other countries' armies to wage war... However launches from Mahia have carried at least 13 payloads for US military or intelligence agencies."

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 claims the satellite could help with nuclear weapons targeting - which could be in breach of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987, which prohibits helping "any person to manufacture, acquire, possess, or have control over any nuclear explosive device". 

"That's not really what we signed up for," said Neas. "The idea that was given back in 2015, 2016 when we were talking about starting a launch industry here was this is about science, this is about humanitarian uses of satellites. That's what I think most of the people of Mahia, where the launch site is, understood what they were signing up to.

"I'm not saying they're an evil company at all, and look, when it comes to space the lines between military and scientific and civilian uses are really, really blurred. The point is we have different views in this country about exactly where that line should be."

Technology in the past 20 years has changed the battlefield, with more of it being done remotely via drones. Satellite imagery is key to that. Supporters say it reduces the risk of civilian casualties.

"The people affected by that wouldn't agree," said Neas. "If you look at some of the wars waged by the US in the last 20 years, I think a lot of New Zealanders are rightfully quite cautious about contributing to those in any way." 

Rocket Lab has denied it has anything to do with nuclear weapons - or any weapons, for that matter.

"Rocket Lab does not and will not launch weapons, payloads that contribute to weapons programmes and nuclear capabilities," the company said in a statement to The AM Show.

"Further to our own commitment, New Zealand law governs all satellites launched from New Zealand. The law is strict about what can and cannot be launched."