A protest banner at the Rocket Lab premises in Mt Wellington. Photo: Ollie Neas
A protest banner at the Rocket Lab premises in Mt Wellington. Photo: Ollie Neas

PoliticsJune 21, 2021

Mahia residents descend on Auckland to protest Rocket Lab links with US military

A protest banner at the Rocket Lab premises in Mt Wellington. Photo: Ollie Neas
A protest banner at the Rocket Lab premises in Mt Wellington. Photo: Ollie Neas

Protesters gathered at Rocket Lab’s Auckland HQ today in opposition to the company’s work with the US military, while the Green Party announced a member’s bill to ban military launches from New Zealand. 

Protest songs echoed down a quiet cul-de-sac in Mt Wellington this afternoon, as around 30 people turned out to protest the military work of space company Rocket Lab outside the company’s Auckland headquarters. Green MP Teanau Tuiono told protesters his party would be introducing a member’s bill to parliament to ban the launching of military hardware from New Zealand.

“Rocket Lab has managed to circumvent our international obligations and commitments to peace. This bill will draw a line in the sand,” Tuiono told the protestors.

Rocket Lab has come under increasing pressure in recent months following the launch of a prototype satellite for the US Army in March designed to improve US military targeting capabilities. 

A security expert described the launch as putting New Zealand into “the kill chain”, while peace groups issued an open letter calling on the prime minister to intervene. Documents released subsequently under the Official Information Act confirm the satellite “will not be utilised for operations” but will “remain a science and technology demonstration over its lifetime”.,

Those attending the protests included peace activists and locals from Mahia, home to the company’s launch site, such as prominent peace activist and Mahia local Pauline Tangiora, who initially publicly backed Rocket Lab’s activities.

Tangiora told demonstrators she previously had a lot of faith in Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, “but I don’t have any faith any more”.

“We oppose Rocket Lab in solidarity with mana whenua who are opposed to the military launches,” said Auckland Peace Action spokesperson Eliana Darroch.

Photo: Ollie Neas

Prior to the demonstration, Auckland University physicist Peter Wills and former disarmament minister Matt Robson met privately with Rocket Lab representatives on behalf of the demonstrators to discuss their concerns. “We made it clear that this is against New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, and integrates us into the United States military chain,” Robson told The Spinoff.

“Rocket Lab told us they could separate out the military from the peaceful uses, and that the military payloads launched to date would not be used for targeting. But our viewpoint is that these satellites are integrated into the whole system, and this undermines our independent foreign policy,” he said.

“As a former minister for disarmament and arms control I am deeply concerned, because my job was to make sure things like this didn’t happen. It’s against both the spirit and the letter of the nuclear free legislation, and also our commitment to the peaceful use of outer space.”

Law change could rule out major Rocket Lab client base 

Under New Zealand’s space law, the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act, all satellites must be approved by the economic development minister, who is currently Stuart Nash. 

The Greens’ proposed amendment would prevent the minister from approving a payload unless satisfied that it does not contain any “military hardware”. The bill defines “military hardware” as “weapons, equipment, machinery, or any other thing intended for use for military purposes by any armed force, paramilitary force, police force, or militia.”  

Tuiono told The Spinoff that the bill would rule out payloads such as the Gunsmoke-J. “I would like to stop anything that is going to enable the killing of people in other countries from being launched,” he said.

It could also rule out private intelligence satellites that sell data to US military and intelligence agencies, Tuiono said. Such companies, such as the Peter Thiel backed company Blacksky, are a major customer base for Rocket Lab. 

Both Rocket Lab and the New Zealand government have emphasised previously that some military technology benefits society, such as GPS which is operated by the US Air Force. It is not clear whether satellites of this kind would be permitted under the proposed law. 

Tuiono acknowledged that some military payloads fell into a “grey area”, saying that he hoped the line would be “teased out at select committee”. 

Rocket Lab has worked for US military agencies for over a decade, has received investment from the CIA’s venture capital firm, and has launched payloads for military or intelligence agencies on eight different missions since 2018. Around 30% of Rocket Lab’s business is for defence agencies, according to investment documents

Most of the military satellites launched by Rocket Lab have been research and development satellites or technology demonstrations, but the purpose and capabilities of some satellites remain secret. The government has also said it expects to approve “operational” military satellites at some point.  

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has said on numerous occasions that his company will not launch weapons, and has defended its military work as contributing to New Zealand’s national security. Both Beck and the New Zealand government have argued that military technology also benefits society, such as GPS which is operated by the US Air Force.  

Because it is a member’s bill, parliament will only vote to advance the legislation if it is drawn from the ballot. Tuiono says he is unsure of what support the bill might receive from National and Labour, which have both been vocal in supporting Rocket Lab’s activities. 

Economic development minister Stuart Nash declined to comment on the protests, but has previously said that he would not approve any payload if he assessed that it would contribute to a nuclear weapons programme. 

Rocket Lab has been approached for comment.

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