19 Oct 2016

Spaced-out debate over high-altitude legislation

10:58 am on 19 October 2016

David Bowie, Elton John and endless puns made it into an outlandish parliamentary debate over proposed laws to govern outer space.

The company Rocket Lab opened its launch site in Mahia in northern Hawke's Bay last month and planned to send its first rocket into space before the end of the year.

Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck. Photo from Rocket Lab website

Peter Beck's company, Rocket Lab, plans to launch a rocket into space by the end of the year. Photo: SUPPLIED / Rocket Lab

That had motivated the government to regulate the space industry, by introducing laws that would require getting a launch licence from the responsible Minister.

The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Bill passed its first reading in Parliament unanimously last night, but not without a round of laughter erupting every time the name of the bill was mentioned.

Senior government minister Stephen Joyce, who sponsored the bill, said it created the modern regulatory environment to enable a space industry to develop safely in New Zealand.

"New Zealand has certain advantages that make it an attractive location for space launches - we have clear seas and skies, access to valuable launch angles, a skilled workforce, and an innovation-friendly business environment."

But Mr Joyce could not help the occasional space-themed pun.

"This bill has been a lot of work over a short space of time, but it is now completely ready for lift-off," he told Parliament.

Labour MP David Clark took the bill even less seriously, using his speech to quote Elton John's 'Rocket Man'.

Dr Clark also poked fun at Mr Joyce's obvious enthusiam for Rocket Lab and its launch site in Mahia.

"It's often said these days in Mahia that Steven Joyce is seen there more often than John Key is seen outside Richie McCaw's dressing room - that's how central it is to his programme."

National MP Todd Muller had his own song to deadpan back at David Clark - saying David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', in which Major Tom was "floating in a most peculiar way", suited Dr Clark to a tee.

Taking the legislation more seriously, New Zealand First MP Fletcher Tabetau said his party would support the bill but had some reservations.

The legislation appeared to have the government carry some of the liability for businesses in the case of any problems, he said.

"That is of some concern ... because we do not want private companies to recuse themselves fully of liability if there is any safety concern under this licensing regime."

The bill would now be considered by the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade select committee.

In the meantime, Rocket Lab and the government had signed an agreement to enable the company's first launch to go ahead.