Fishing or Rockets? Space Operator Denies Involvement in Lakeside Cabin Evictions

Fishing or Rockets? Space Operator Denies Involvement in Lakeside Cabin Evictions

Kaitorete Spit separating Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora from Canterbury Bay.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Phillip Capper

An 83-year-old Canterbury fisherman wants to know if he has been thrown out of his lakeside hut because a company plans to launch rockets nearby.

RNZ revealed last week that the Tāwhaki National Aeronautics and Space Centre is in talks with undisclosed international partners about a multi-launch spaceport on the Kaitorete Spit.

Don Brown says he can’t shake the feeling that he and other residents across Lake Ellesmere from Te Waihora Spit are being caught in a race for space money.

“Of course, a good day for fishing is a good day for rockets,” Brown told RNZ on Wednesday. “I think the eviction is more focused on the growing aerospace business than the other reasons they gave.”

The manager of the huts, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, denied that there was any relationship between the two.

“There is no link between the termination of the leases at Green Park Huts and Tāwhaki,” a spokesman told RNZ.

The huts are located about 7km across the lake from the first space infrastructure on the spit – a recently opened small runway and hangar.

Brown plans to raise the issue with the rūnanga at a routine meeting on Sunday. He is a Ngāi Tahu, as well as a tangata kaitiaki fisherman on the lake, and sees the irony in seeking an answer from a Crown-rūnanga joint venture that is well-positioned to pursue new interests on land.

“We are looking at participants like NASA and maybe Lockheed Martin, people who use this site extensively and want to access it,” he said.

“So there are these opportunities, and the community – myself included – is wondering, what is the main reason really?

“I understand their nervousness because they don’t know who they will be doing business with.”

The government has invested $30 million in Tāwhaki, a project it describes as “the world’s first Indigenous-led aeronautics initiative”.

Tāwhaki said he was not involved in the lease of the huts and would not comment. He also did not say who he had spoken to about the spaceport.

“It is not our policy to comment on specifics relating to individuals we work with as these are commercially sensitive discussions… it is important that any potential partner or client knows that we will respect this.”

Ngāi Tahu said Tāwhaki was “not a tribal endeavour”.

The National Space Agency said it had nothing to do with Tāwhaki’s efforts to increase customer numbers.

While official reports issued under the Official Information Act (OIA) by the state government were crucial to instill confidence in the country’s space industry among foreign partners, the space agency said it only had a “broad” promotional role and “did not have the authority or resources to direct activities”.

The agency said it was not aware of any American interest in the venture.

RNZ has contacted the US Department of Defence for comment.

Tāwhaki, a joint venture between Crown and Te Taumutu Rūnanga and Wairewa Rūnanga, bought 1000ha of farmland on the spit in 2021 after assessments identified it as the best site in the country for building one to six launch platforms, but more likely two or three small or medium-sized platforms.

Spitting is the government’s ticket to the growing global rocket launch market, following the successes of Elon Musk’s Starlink program.

Tāwhaki is preparing a new business plan which will be presented to government in the coming months.

A 2020 report on Kaitorete states that it could be used as a testing ground for hypersonic technology – technology that the US, Chinese and Russian militaries have already tested.

Brown believed that the expansion of the aerospace industry, not regulatory compliance or water and sewage concerns as they were told, was the real reason the barracks would be demolished next year, but added that they were “largely not informed about that.”

“There seems to be a possibility of foreign interests, so I can understand their reluctance to be too open about things. But it’s hard to trust some of the statements they’ve made.”

The 2023 report included a section on Tāwhaki’s future strategy, excerpted from documents released under the OIA. Reports suggested the venture could create hundreds of jobs.

An earlier assessment of the spaceport said Lake Ellesmere “could act as a natural safety buffer” during launches, which “would likely involve closing part of the lake” – either temporarily or permanently, but that is unclear.

Jacqui Caine, head of strategy and environment at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, said they had offered to fund the demolition of the Green Park Huts, which were owned by the tribe.

“While we recognise this is a difficult decision for some leaseholders to accept, our focus is on representing the interests of the 83,000 iwi members who whakapapa Ngāi Tahu and restoring Te Waihora to health so it can be a taonga for generations to come,” Caine said in a statement.

She added that access to the lake for mahinga kai purposes will still be possible.

Graeme Young lived a few kilometres away from the starting point, in Upper Selwyn Huts.
Photo: Delivered/Christchurch High Court

Graeme Young lived a few kilometres from any launch pad, in Upper Selwyn Huts, where Selwyn District Council had to leave within 15 years. Fifty pages of council reports on the subject in March made no mention of aviation.

“We might be in an exclusion zone or a safety zone, so we think, well … maybe that’s the real reason they’re trying to move us,” Young said.

“And they can sit there and say, ‘Well, we don’t have any big international players who want to launch missiles from here yet,’ but they’ve said that’s what they want.”

Maps showed that the rocket debris dispersal zones did not extend anywhere near the huts or the town of Birdlings Flat to the east.

The map showing the dispersal zones of rocket debris did not extend anywhere near the huts or the town of Birdlings Flat to the east.
Photo: Bryce / delivered

But residents should receive compensation, such as what Elon Musk’s SpaceX paid to a Texas municipality, Young said.

However, SpaceX’s expansion plans in the region have proven controversial.

Development options at Kaitorete included construction of space platforms by platform companies at the joint venture site, which could be used by separate launch service companies.