Residents angry over 'surprise' rocket launch plan

Kaitorete Spit is currently home to a small runway and hangar. PHOTO: Tāwhaki National Aerospace...
Kaitorete Spit is currently home to a small runway and hangar. PHOTO: Tāwhaki National Aerospace Centre
Residents of a tiny Banks Peninsula settlement say they have been blindsided over possible rocket launches at a new aerospace centre.

Options are being explored for building vertical rocket launch pads at the Kaitorete Spit site alongside Te Waihora Lake Ellesmere.

But Birdlings Flat residents say the aerospace centre’s owner Tāwhaki Joint Venture ruled out rocket launches at a community meeting in June 2021, saying it was committed to horizontal and drone launches only.

“They definitively told us there wouldn’t be rockets at the meeting,” resident Joy Dixon said.

“They don’t give a toss about the locals,” she said.

Dixon said residents learned recently through media reports Tāwhaki was investigating building rocket launch pads at the 1000ha site at Kaitorete Spit. The location is 12km from Birdlings Flat.

Residents now want Tawhaki, a joint venture with the Crown and the two Ngāi Tahu rūnanga located near the spit, Te Taumutu and Wairewa, to address their concerns – or face opposition to the project.

Dixon would not say what that opposition would be. Residents are talking to “sources” to determine what they should do next. They have not decided whether they will publicly oppose any vertical rocket launches, hoping to engage with the Tāwhaki Joint Venture first.

“We’re going on a fact-finding mission to see what people know,” said Dixon.

Tāwhaki chief executive Linda Falwasser did not answer questions from The Star asking whether Tāwhaki had informed nearby residents about possible vertical launches and what consultation might take place in the future.

The UC Aerospace rocket launched from Birdlings Flat in 2022. Photo: Supplied
The UC Aerospace rocket launched from Birdlings Flat in 2022. Photo: Supplied
In an emailed statement she said: “Tāwhaki National Aerospace Centre at Kaitorete is a multi-use facility and we are taking a phased and considered approach to its development in line with demand, and so the land flourishes for generations to come.

“Our focus to date has been supporting the aerospace sector in Aotearoa and scaling up the site accordingly, alongside environmental rejuvenation work and planning.

“We recently completed the construction of a sealed runway that enables horizontal space launch and a hangar build is underway.  

“We’ve also been talking to international companies to understand sector demand and potential infrastructure requirements for vertical launch,’’ the statement said.

Tāwhaki said the potential for vertical launch had been public record since the joint venture was established.

But residents dispute this. Dixon said Tāwhaki assured them the aerospace centre would only be used for horizontal and drone flights at the meeting in June 2021.

Dixon says residents believe they have been “misled”.

The joint venture has seen about $30 million of Government investment and has the twin goals of advancing New Zealand’s aerospace industry and funding environmental restoration in the Kaitorete Spit.

The aerospace centre opened in February with a 1km long, 30m wide runway.

Tāwhaki estimates the aerospace centre will generate 1300 high-paying jobs and create up to $2.4 billion in national economic benefits over 10 years.

The Government is expecting a business case from Tāwhaki at the end of the year for further development at the centre.

But New Zealand Space Agency deputy head Andrew Johnson said there are currently “no formal plans in place to construct launch pads’’.

Environment Canterbury and the city council have not received any consent applications for the construction of launch pads.

ECan consents planning manager Aurora Grant said the consents Tāwhaki will need for vertical rocket launches could be similar to those approved for a Rocket Lab complex at Kaitorete in 2015 which was cancelled after the company found a better site.

These included consents for discharging contaminants into the air, discharging stormwater relating to new buildings, and a permit to occupy a coastal marine area with a rocket launching complex.

There was opposition to the Rocket Lab plans from Birdlings Flat residents at the time.

The residents have not decided whether they will publicly oppose rocket launches, hoping to engage with the Tāwhaki Joint Venture first.

An open day for the aerospace centre which invited nearby residents was meant to be held on June 9, but was cancelled due to bad weather.

Some residents turned up anyway, unaware of the cancellation.  Tāwhaki staff at the site said they were unaware of any plans for vertical rocket launches.

The residents want their concerns answered which include potential environmental impacts on the unique ecosystems in Lake Ellesmere and Kaitorete.

“I don’t know if rockets are going to be too good for bird life,” said Dixon.

Falwasser would not comment on any planning Tāwhaki is undertaking for environmental protection.

The potential for vertical rocket launches to affect traffic infrastructure and freedom of movement in Birdlings Flat are also concerns they want addressed.

“If they even consider blocking off access to the beach, they have a big fight coming,” said a resident.