Fishing or rockets? Space operator denies involvement in lakeside hut evictions

Kaitorete Spit separating Lake Ellesmere / Te Waihora from the Canterbury Bight. Photo: Wikimedia...
Kaitorete Spit separating Lake Ellesmere / Te Waihora from the Canterbury Bight. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Phillip Capper
By Phil Pennington

An 83-year-old Canterbury fisherman wants to know if he is being given the heave-ho from his lakeside hut because a company wants to launch rockets nearby.

RNZ revealed last week the Tāwhaki National Aerospace Centre is talking to unidentified international partners about a spaceport with multiple launchpads on Kaitorete Spit.

Don Brown says he cannot help thinking he and other locals across Te Waihora Lake Ellesmere from the spit are casualties of the race to tap space dollars.

"Of course, a good day for fishing is a good day for rockets," Brown told RNZ on Wednesday. "I believe that the eviction is centred much more about the aerospace activity that's being progressed, than the other reasons that they have given."

The huts' property manager Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu denied any link.

"There is no relationship between the end of the leases at Green Park Huts and Tāwhaki," a spokesperson told RNZ.

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

Brown intends to raise it with the rūnanga at a routine meeting on Sunday. He is Ngāi Tahu, as well as a fisheries tangata kaitiaki on the lake, and sees the irony in seeking answers from a Crown-rūnanga joint venture pursuing new interests in land in a prime launch position.

"What we're looking at is participants such as perhaps NASA, and perhaps Lockheed Martin, some high-use people wanting to access the site," he said.

"So there's those sort of possibilities that are out there, and the community - including myself - are sort of thinking, well, what's the real big reason?

"I can understand their nervousness because of who they are likely to be in business with."

The government has put $30m into Tāwhaki, which it heralds as the "world's first indigenous-led aerospace initiative".

Tāwhaki said it was not involved in the hut leases and would not comment. It also would not say who it was talking to about a spaceport.

"It's not our policy to comment on the specifics of who we're engaging with as these are commercially sensitive conversations... it's important that any prospective partner or customer knows we will respect that."

Ngāi Tahu said Tāwhaki "is not a tribal enterprise".

The government's National Space Agency said it had nothing to do with Tāwhaki drumming up business.

Although official reports released under the Official Information Act (OIA) state government leadership was crucial to give overseas partners confidence in the country's space industry, the space agency stated it had only a "broad" promotion role and was "not mandated nor resourced to lead engagements".

It was not aware of any American military interest in it, the agency said.

RNZ has asked the US Department of Defence for comment.

Tāwhaki, a joint venture between the Crown and Te Taumutu Rūnanga and Wairewa Rūnanga, bought 1000ha of farmland at the spit in 2021 after assessments rated it as the top spot nationwide for between one and anything up to six launchpads, but more likely two or three small-to-medium pads.

The spit is the government's entry card into the galloping global market for rocket launches, following Elon Musk's Starlink successes.

Tāwhaki is doing a new business case that will go to the government in coming months.

A 2020 report on Kaitorete said it could be used as a testbed for hypersonics - something the US, China and Russian militaries were already testing.

Brown thought aerospace expansion - and not compliance, water and wastewater problems, as they had been told - was the real reason huts would be demolished next year, but said they had been kept "largely uninformed".

"It does seem that there is going to be the probability of overseas interests, and therefore I can sort of understand their reluctance to be too open about things. But it's hard to trust some of the statements that they've been making."

A 2023 report had a section on Tāwhaki's future strategy, blanked out of the documents released under the OIA. Reports suggested the venture could create hundreds of jobs.

An earlier assessment for a spaceport said Lake Ellesmere "can act as a natural safety buffer" for launches, which were "likely to involve closing parts of the lake" - temporarily or permanently, was not clear.

Jacqui Caine, head of strategy and environment at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, said they had offered to pay for demolition of the Green Park Huts that were tribal property.

"While we realise that 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 the health of Te Waihora so that it can be a taonga for future generations," Caine said in a statement.

Access to the lake for mahinga kai purposes would carry on, she added.

Graeme Young. Photo: Supplied/High Court at Christchurch
Graeme Young. Photo: Supplied/High Court at Christchurch
Graeme Young lived a few kilometres further back from any launch pad, at Upper Selwyn Huts, where residents faced a 15-year deadline to leave from the Selwyn District Council. Fifty pages of council reports on this in March did not mention aerospace.

"We could well be in an exclusion zone, or a safety zone, and so we think, well... maybe that's the real reason they are trying to move us on," Young said.

"And they can sit there and say, 'Well, we don't have any big international players yet that want to send off rockets from here,' but they've said that's what they want."

Maps showed rocket debris dispersal zones did not get anywhere near the huts or Birdlings Flat township to the east.

A map showing rocket debris dispersal zones did not get anywhere near the huts or Birdlings Flat...
A map showing rocket debris dispersal zones did not get anywhere near the huts or Birdlings Flat township to the east. Photo: Bryce / supplied
But residents should get compensation, like Elon Musk's SpaceX paid a township in Texas, Young said.

However, SpaceX's expansion plans there were proving controversial.

The development options at Kaitorete included spacepad companies building those on the joint venture's land, for use by separate launch companies.