Yesterday New Zealand launched a rocket from the only privately owned launch site in the world – just across the bay from my home town of Napier. And we joined an exclusive club of space-faring nations.
The Electron booster and its Rutherford engines that did the job were invented and built here by a local company, Rocket Lab. Yesterday’s test didn’t make orbit as intended, but all things being equal, they’ll be sending the first privately built probe to the Moon within the year – the ‘Moon Express’ developed in Florida. And there’s a major market for small satellite launchers.
How times change. Back when I was growing up in Napier in the 1960s, New Zealand viewed itself as Britain’s larder, a pastoral nation whose prosperity came from sending frozen sheep carcases to Britain. We also viewed ourselves as provincial and backward by comparison with other nations – socially behind the times, and without access to the lifestyles and goods that could be had in Britain or the US.
In fact we had first-world infrastructure and one of the highest standards of living in the world. We also had tech-innovators, including my father who – among other things while working for Western Electric in the 1950s – devised and patented a method of stereo sound reproduction using ordinary light (he didn’t get a cent out of it, of course, other than salary – and the patent’s currently owned by Nokia… I checked).
The thing was that in New Zealand there wasn’t a lot of industry and much of the inventiveness that Kiwis had was deployed overseas. New Zealanders were working in some surprising places, including Bill Pickering, who ran the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
New Zealand was nonetheless up with the play when it came to world events. Back then the Apollo program was in full swing and (as Sun Ra once put it), space was the place. Kelloggs issued lunar module kits in cornflakes packets. I had one of those, and an Atlas-Mercury combo from the same source. We drank Tang and ate ice-blocks in the shape of a spacesuited astronaut. Very cool.
But when it came to the real thing – well, rockets were something done by other people – at the time the Americans and the Soviets. The British had been dabbling with them, but the Blue Steel launcher had all the characteristics of a public servant of the day – it didn’t work and couldn’t be fired. Innovative ideas such as the English Electric/BAC ‘MUSTARD’ – a triplex lifting body that in theory could have flown around the Moon – were never funded. Besides which, at the time New Zealand’s role was to provide Britain not with high-tech rocketry, but with frozen sheep half-carcases wrapped in mutton-cloth.
To suppose that one day New Zealand might develop its own rocket motors, its own rocket, and join the USA, Russia, Japan, China, France, Britain, India, the Ukraine, Israel, Iran and North Korea in launching satellites was outside even our wildest dreams.
Well, guess what – it’s happened. And how cool is that?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017