Team NZ’s role in the space race

When Rocket Lab blasts its first rocket into space from a launch pad on the remote Mahia Peninsula any day now, Peter Beck should really wear a pair of red socks.

Although he’s not a sailing fan (“I prefer a higher altitude”), Beck - the founder and chief executive of revolutionary New Zealand company Rocket Lab - pays credit to Team New Zealand and the America’s Cup for helping to get his revolutionary global space business off the ground.

The world’s first all-carbon composite launch vehicle - which will, should all go well with the looming test mission, deliver many satellites into orbit from the remote East Coast - has been devised with some of the knowledge and experience garnered from America’s Cup campaigns past.

Since 1987 and the Plastic Fantastic, New Zealand’s Cup teams have always been regarded as frontrunners in adopting and adapting new technology. Think, most recently, foiling cats and pedal power. It’s their work with carbon composites – a high-strength, low-weight blend of carbon fibre and resin – that is now highly sought-after by other Kiwi enterprises.

“It has certainly been very instrumental to us in developing and building the technology we have,” says Beck, the 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year.

“The kind of people that come out of the America’s Cup are, by nature, very innovative - always at the top of their game. We employ the best people on the planet, and some of those have worked in that industry.

“We have a lot of people working for us from Team New Zealand, and we have international people as well - Americans, Europeans, guys who have worked for NASA and Formula One. But the New Zealand industrial base in composites is very well-recognised internationally.”

Jamie France - from the sea to the sky. Photo: Team NZ

Among the former Team NZ engineers and boat builders now making an impact at Rocket Lab is Jamie France, who was a design engineer with the yachting syndicate from 1997 through to 2013. Since last October, he’s been production manager for Rocket Lab at its bustling base near Auckland airport, where the US$4.9m (NZ$7.01m), 17 metre-long Electron rockets are designed and built.

It’s not only the technology advantage that Beck was seeking from Team NZ’s brains trust – it was also their work ethic and ethos.

“[They] are not limited by what is perceived as possible. That integrates well into our company where we are trying to bite off something enormous. I think Kiwis in general have that kind of attitude of ‘We can do this’,” he says.

“Rocket Lab is not a nine-to-five job. It’s a group of people with a tremendous passion. And having passionate people is so important to succeed, whether you’re trying to build a big business launching rockets or trying to win the America’s Cup. It’s all the same.”

Beck is now on the brink of realising a dream he’s pursued since 2006 - to make it quicker and cheaper for satellite companies to put small satellites into space, on board his Electron launch rockets. Once the test flight programme at Mahia is successfully completed, New Zealand will boast the first private launching pad for commercial orbital missions.

Rocket Lab and Emirates Team New Zealand have another common denominator – the backing of businessman-investor Sir Stephen Tindall. The Warehouse founder was an early investor in Rocket Lab through his K1W1 investment fund, and has been an individual benefactor of Team NZ since he “paid for a gennaker back in 1995”.

“The motivation for me has always been the economic benefit for New Zealand,” says Tindall. “I loved what I saw happen in 2000, and in the build-up to 2003, the way the America’s Cup transformed and cranked up Auckland. Super-yachts coming down and being refitted; the way that downtown Auckland was rebuilt. That pushed my buttons the most. And now the spin-out companies excite me.”

Beck says he’s already witnessing more Kiwi business shooting out of Rocket Lab’s early success. “Already we’re seeing a lot of our suppliers – whether it be machine shops, harnesses or wiring – really lift their game. They are now supplying to the space industry, and they can put that on their credentials to supply the space industry globally,” he says.

“We sponsor PhD courses at the University of Canterbury; satellite programmes are starting to develop; the government has funded a space licensing initiative. The space industry is growing very strongly in this country. It’s one of the great things about our product – it’s very easy to inspire people and get them excited.”

Even though the America’s Cup has been absent from our waters for 14 years, spin-offs from the regatta continue to benefit New Zealand’s marine industry, with the world of composite technology now opening new revenue opportunities.

Peter Busfield, executive director of the NZ Marine Industry, believes carbon composites are “a real launching pad for New Zealand”. A national marine and composites industry training programme has 400 apprentices in 190 companies.

“We are training people not only to build boats, but composite Olympic racing bikes, wheelchairs, helicopters and rockets. People involved in America’s Cup technology will be involved in building the SkyPath under the Auckland Harbour Bridge. It virtually all stems out of America’s Cup research and development,” he says.

Southern Spars, already recognised as a world leader in carbon fibre spars and rigging, has built almost all of Team NZ’s AC50 boat for the America’s Cup in Bermuda in May. From their new manufacturing plant in Avondale, they’ve also branched into cycling – making carbon wheels for the New Zealand track cyclists at the Rio Olympics – and medical evacuation stretchers for rescue planes.

In the town of Warkworth, north of Auckland, Core Builders Composites – owned by US software magnate Larry Ellison’s Oracle Racing – has built the latest generation of America’s Cup boats and wing-sails for over half of the Bermudan fleet.

But in the downtimes, with the help of a Callaghan Innovation growth grant to improve technology, it has expanded into major architectural and industrial projects.

Core Builders Composites had a hand in creating the world’s first carbon composite helicopter, has worked on the Martin Jetpack, and was part of the design consortium that developed the kilometre-long SkyPath walk and cycleway through to resource consent.

It is now involved with international projects for Google – including a flying wind turbine and passenger drones.

“New Zealand has a niche competitive advantage in marine-based advanced composites. Only a few other countries, like France and England, have it,” Core Builders Composites general manager Tim Smyth says. “As the concrete and steel industries die, a lot of the major ‘bits’ in the world are going to be built out of composites in the future, so we have the chance to be the forefront.”

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