Campaign Against It Blasts Off

- Murray Horton

In Watchdog 155 (December 2020) I wrote the article "Rocket Lab Drags NZ Into US Militarisation Of Space", which updated the increasingly troubling story of this NZ subsidiary of a US private company which is launching satellites for US military and spy agencies from its NZ launch site (Mahia Peninsula). I drew heavily on the long running excellent work on Rocket Lab by NZ investigative journalist Ollie Neas.

Helping US Warfighting Capabilities

Things haven't got any better since 2020. Late that year it emerged that Rocket Lab was looking forward to getting ever further enmeshed in the US military's war fighting capabilities in 2021. It would be launching a "Gunsmoke-J cubesat technology demonstration mission for the US Army's Space and Missile Defense Command in the first quarter of the year".

"he US company responsible for the actual deployment of the satellite from Rocket Lab's rocket says it will have huge impact on milestone developments in war fighter capabilities on the battlefield and beyond" (Satellite Today, 22/10/20). Ollie Neas told me in an e-mail: "It appears this satellite has a more explicit warfighting focus than previous 'R & D' (research and development) payloads".

This was later confirmed, in July 2021, by a defence industry magazine article entitled "With All Three Gunsmoke-J Satellites On Orbit, The (US) Army Is Ready To Test Space-Based Targeting". This completely undercuts the oft-repeated statements by Rocket Lab's Chief Executive Officer, Peter Beck, that the payloads do not have military applications. "Targeting" seems quite military to me.

The fawning NZ media coverage of Rocket Lab went into overdrive in early 2021 when it was announced that the company will be publicly listing on the Nasdaq Stock Market in New York, with a stated value of $US4.1 billion (that has since been postponed a bit). Certainly, as far as the two major NZ TV networks are concerned, their Rocket Lab coverage is very much one where they have stars in their eyes (pardon the pun).

Ollie Neas Shines A Light On Rocket Lab

But something changed in 2021. Namely, that there is starting to be some organised opposition to Rocket Lab, starting small, as these things always do but exhibiting both great enthusiasm and creativity. Watchdog will modestly claim a small part in this. The indefatigable Dennis Small has been writing about Rocket Lab for several years now.

That, combined with Ollie Neas' excellent work in much bigger outlets than Watchdog, piqued the interest of Anti-Bases Campaign (CAFCA's partner in crime and my other Organiser job) and ABC started looking at what could be done about it. ABC is a Christchurch-based group, so there is no possibility of us organising any activities at either Rocket Lab's Mahia launch site or Auckland assembly plant and headquarters. They are both simply too far away (the Waihopai spy base in Marlborough is the limit of ABC's range). So, all we could do was to publicise the case against Rocket Lab and urge others closer to the scene to take up the cause.

As part of ABC's regular Waihopai spy base protest, in January 2021, ABC hosted a well-attended Blenheim public meeting. One of the speakers was Ollie Neas, on Rocket Lab. We had invited Ollie to speak at our Blenheim meeting as part of our January 2020 Waihopai protest but he told us that he'd moved overseas. So, we thought, that was that.

However, halfway through that most memorable of years, I spotted a reference to him being back in the country and guessed, correctly, that he had joined the hordes of Kiwi refugees driven to come home by the pandemic. He was delighted to accept our second time lucky invitation to speak in Blenheim (you can read my report on the Waihopai 2021 protest & Blenheim public meeting in Peace Researcher 61, June 2021).

People found what he had to say both enthralling and highly alarming. As the audience was comprised of activists from all over the country, there was a determination expressed to spread the word and do something about Rocket Lab. As outlined below, a campaign against Rocket Lab has now started. Whether ABC can claim any credit for that is a moot point but we're happy to have played our part.

As for Ollie Neas, he went on to write a lengthy feature article about Rocket Lab in the March 2021 North & South ("Mahia, We Have A Problem"). It is undoubtedly the longest and most informative article on Rocket Lab to have appeared in the mainstream media so far and attracted quite a lot of attention from other media outlets. Excellent.

Birth Of Rocket Lab Monitor

The news got better. Auckland peace activists decided to take an active interest in Rocket Lab. Followed shortly thereafter, in February 2021, by the birth of a campaign in the Mahia area i.e., near Rocket Lab's launch site. Rocket Lab Monitor was set up by local Maori women. They have an extremely informative Website and can be contacted at

The Website states: "Rocket Lab Monitor is led by people directly connected to Mahia because we live at Mahia and/or whakapapa to Rongomaiwahine. We invite others to join and support all efforts to better understand the activities of Rocket Lab and ensure only peaceful activities take place at Mahia... Rocket Lab Monitor is a group of volunteers focusing on information collection and education - making sure information shared is factual as something for concerned locals and others to join and build awareness not only of Rocket Lab activities but New Zealand government policy and decision-making on launches".

This opposition first manifested itself in advance of Rocket Lab's March 2021 launch of the Gunsmoke-J payload (see above). A range of people and organisations (including ABC) wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for the immediate suspension of military payloads. This promptly got major coverage in the Gisborne Herald, the newspaper of the nearest city to the launch site.

And led to Sonya Smith, the Wairoa woman fronting Rocket Lab Monitor, to be visited by the cops "to talk about the group". That's a pretty heavy-handed reaction to a group which had done no more than set up a Website and a Facebook page. Rocket Lab Monitor was undaunted and held a peace march hikoi in Opoutama, Mahia.

Public Relations Blunders

Rocket Lab realised it had to mount some sort of public relations defence. So, it invited a Gisborne activist involved in the campaign to tour its launch site (he didn't take it up). They also issued an invitation to Green MP Teanau Tuiono, who had been outspoken in opposition to Rocket Lab (Teanau had spoken at ABC's Waihopai spy base protest and Blenheim public meeting, back in January). He didn't take it up, either. Instead, he and Gisborne-based Green MP, Elizabeth Kerekere (in their capacity as members of the Greens' Maori Caucus) met with shareholders in the Maori land being used for the launch site.

Teanau posted, on the Green Party site (29/3/21): "Shareholders we have spoken to have not seen the contract with Rocket Lab, which shows the lack of consultation done with tangata whenua. It is a perception of segregation when there are two gates, one for Māori and one for Rocket Lab when accessing the whenua".

"Rocket Lab accesses the whenua through an electric gate which needs a password to get through, while Māori are required to enter through a standard farm gate over bumpy, gravel road before meeting the nicely sealed Rocket Lab road. This is an example of how easy it can be to tokenise partnerships with tangata whenua".

Rocket Lab made further public relations blunders, putting out a press release saying it had given local Maori $1,000 for food and essential supplies during 2020's national lockdown. Former Chief Executive of Rongomaiwahine Iwi Trust Mo Rongo said, on Facebook: "'I thought at the time the offer to be inappropriate, as we as an iwi can more than adequately take care of our own community, and secondly that sometime in the future Rocket Lab's kind gesture would be used as some form of American corporate grandstanding, which unfortunately has come to fruition'".

"Mr Rongo resigned from the trust in September (2020) following five years as Chairman and one year as Chief Executive. '(During that time) I was vehemently opposed to taking funds from Rocket Lab or other corporates that may lead to us or our beneficiaries being beholden to that entity. We've been here 1,000 years and we'll be here 1,000 years after they're gone. We'll be fine'" (Gisborne Herald, 29/3/21). Rocket Lab Monitor went onto the front foot, erecting a number of billboards around the Mahia district, with slogans such as "No military payloads. Haere atu (go away) Rocket Lab".

Mainstream Media Gets A Little Bit Critical

And the Gisborne Herald was showing commendable initiative in pursuing the Rocket Lab story. It used the Official Information Act to ask the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE, which has to approve Rocket Lab's payloads) for details of those payloads. The documents arrived with all payload details heavily redacted. The paper ran a photo of the blacked-out documents (24/4/21).

Even the fawning TV coverage of Rocket Lab started to acknowledge that there might be another side to the story. TVNZ's Q & A travelled to Mahia to talk to Sonya Smith and other Rocket Lab Monitor activists. The visit coincided with a small protest against a May 2021 Rocket Lab launch (which failed, embarrassingly for the company, with the loss of two commercial satellites). The Q & A clip (23/5/21) can be viewed here.

Space For Peace Campaign

And organised opposition is no longer just in Mahia. Led by Auckland peace activists, a national campaign was started, called Space For Peace (with the slogan: "Aotearoa is NOT a space militarisation launch-pad"). I have played a part in this campaign, including taking part in my first ever Zoom meetings. Activities thus far have ranged from information Webinars to a protest in Auckland, which is where Rocket Lab has its corporate HQ and rocket assembly plant.

The Auckland protest in June 2021 got good media coverage (for example). You can contact the campaign at And the NZ campaign has come to the attention of the US-based Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (ABC has exchanged publications with it for many years). That Network has started running material about Rocket Lab - I’ve written some of it. You can watch Kevin Clements, veteran NZ peace activist and academic, being interviewed, post- Auckland protest, about Rocket Lab on the Global Network's Youtube channel.

Finally, the people of New Zealand are starting to see the ugly reality behind the glossy facade of Rocket Lab. Starting with Mahia, opposition is manifesting itself around the country. Anti-Bases Campaign is proud to play our part in that opposition. The reason is in our name - Rocket Lab is an American company operating a privately-owned base in NZ for the use and benefit of the US military and spy agencies.

That wasn't the company's reason for existence when it started off as a small New Zealand outfit in the first decade of this century but it is now. If it's not prepared to demilitarise its operations, then it must be closed in NZ and relocate its US military/intelligence business to the US, where it already has another launch site. Haere atu, Rocket Lab!


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