June 11th, 2021
By Mark Rocket
November last year, we publicly launched our company, along with the stratospheric project we’re working on and our involvement with New Zealand’s Airspace Integration Trials. Since then, a few people have asked how we got started, so here’s the story of Kea Aerospace’s origins.
In 2007, I started commercial operations of Rocket Lab with Peter Beck. I was the seed investor and Co-Director until 2011. The company was established in Auckland and has made great strides, but I was also keen to see a thriving aerospace industry emerge here in my home city Ōtautahi Christchurch. So during 2017, I started to research potential pathways to achieve this.
Christchurch is New Zealand’s second-largest manufacturing hub, has relatively low air traffic, and has many other factors favouring aerospace development. There’s a potential future where Christchurch is the home to hundreds of aerospace companies and thousands of aerospace jobs. The city is a gateway to the Antarctic; Christchurch could also be a gateway to space.
The University of Canterbury has been doing outstanding work producing talented engineers who find employment at Rocket Lab and other international aerospace companies. Until recently, there have been few local job opportunities in Christchurch, but that’s now starting to change.
When Dr Philipp Sueltrop was studying at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, he was impressed by Rocket Lab’s 2009 Ātea-1 launch and, as a result, decided to move to the other side of the planet to complete his study at the University of Canterbury. This led to our paths converging, and initial project discussions began.
Incorporated on February 1st, 2018, Kea Aerospace had two initial goals; firstly, to kick-off a new aerospace project and, secondly, to build up the local aerospace ecosystem.
Finding a new aerospace project wasn’t easy. Initially, we focused on leveraging New Zealand’s opportunity with its new orbital launch capability. Developing satellite hardware is commercially intriguing, but there are already hundreds of similar international projects trying to find a unique proposition around orbital communications or orbital Earth observation. New commercial payload opportunities will emerge in the coming years, but it’s a crowded space for now. After reviewing various aerospace projects, Philipp put forward a compelling business case for developing a high-altitude, solar-powered aircraft that flies in the stratosphere. We have subsequently developed a unique approach for stratospheric operations that sets the company on an exciting trajectory.
Kea Aerospace’s second mission of developing a local ecosystem is also going well; Christchurch’s aerospace community is thriving. Working with many people and organisations, we helped kick-off aerospace events and other activities under the Christchurch Aerospace Centre banner. This coalesced into an energetic group and now operates under the names Aerospace Christchurch and Aerospace New Zealand. It has an outstanding committee of aerospace participants and has strong ties with ChristchurchNZ, the New Zealand Space Agency and the University of Canterbury.
A significant milestone for the organisation was instigating the Christchurch Aerospace Sector Plan, which has resulted in Christchurch becoming the first New Zealand city to have an aerospace strategy. Looking forward, Aerospace Christchurch is working on a range of local projects, will keep running ever-expanding meetups and will be involved with additional national initiatives.
Finishing on the origins of the name “Kea Aerospace”, the word kea is Māori and likely derives from an onomatopoeic representation of their in-flight call – ‘keee aaa’. The kea is a remarkable bird only found in the forested and alpine regions of our southern island home, Te Waipounamu. It’s got a reputation for being intelligent, curious, beautiful and disruptive – all qualities that our company aspires to embody. We have talked with local Māori about the kea, birds of Aotearoa, and celestial navigation traditions, so we are excited to weave Te Waipounamu’s past into our present and future.
It’s been a productive few years, and Kea Aerospace’s genesis has been a thrilling ride so far. We can’t wait to see what the 2020s will bring.