Once thought to be a world belonging only to astronauts and rocket scientists – and dominated by men - New Zealand's space industry is booming, with women at the forefront. Later this month, Rocket Lab will launch to the moon for Nasa, supporting a programme aiming to land the first woman and first person of colour, writes Sophie Trigger.
Staring up at the night sky during a dinner break, Sarah Blyde started to think about the universe.
She was 26 and working as an engineer in the petroleum industry in Western Australia in 2019.
"Just looking up at the night sky at all the planets and the stars [wondering] what's going on out there in the universe, is pretty cool.
"I had an epiphany one day that while they need engineers in the petroleum industry, they also need them in the space industry.
First, she looked up the local observatory and started volunteering there.
"I had my eye on what was happening overseas - all these awesome impressive rocket launches going to space - but then I heard about Rocket Lab back home doing impressive things.
"It opened up my eyes to see actually we can do this, Kiwis can work in the space sector. And I started basically charting a bit of a path to get there."
She's now a project engineer for Rocket Lab - managing changes on the Electron launch vehicle from its initial concept until it is flying to space.
Electron is a three-stage orbital rocket that has launched 146 satellites – it's the second most frequently launched US rocket.
Based at the Auckland Production Complex in Mt Wellington, Blyde's job is to coordinate changes to the design of Electron.
"It's an interesting role because there's so much variety in the projects we are involved with," she said.
"In the morning, we could be talking with recovery engineers about the parachute system, then in the afternoon, we could be discussing modifications to the payload fairing for an upcoming mission with the production team."
Rocket Lab was founded in New Zealand by Peter Beck in 2006. As well as launching lightweight electron orbital rockets, the company designs satellites and manufactures spacecraft software - with Rocket Lab technology on more than 1700 space missions across the world.
The New Zealand launch site in Mahia in Hawke's Bay, is the world's first and only private active orbital launch site.
From here Electron has launched 26 times, and this month Rocket Lab will launch to the moon for Nasa.
The mission is a pathfinding one, supporting Nasa's Artemis programme, which aims to land the first woman and first person of colour on the moon.
Growing up in New Zealand, working in the space industry wasn't something Blyde considered as a career option.
"Nowadays it's totally different, the space sector has grown a lot in the past few years, particularly the commercial space sector.
"Here in New Zealand as well, there's a world of opportunities out there for people in school and university.
"I think space can inspire so many people in so many different ways – it's not just about launching rockets."
Space industry tipped to triple in 20 years
New Zealand's space industry is fast-growing.
A report from Deloitte after the 2018/19 year valued New Zealand's space industry at a revenue of $1.75 billion. The industry's economic contribution to the country was $1.69 billion over the same period.
Globally, the space industry is expected to triple by 2030.
Once thought to be a world belonging only to astronauts and rocket scientists – and dominated by men - New Zealand's space industry now directly employs more than 5000 people, and supports a further 12,000 full-time roles, such as those involved in the supply chain.
But in spite of the growing opportunities, it's thought women occupy only about 10 to 20 per cent of positions in the space sector.
Blyde is passionate about getting more women into the industry.
She is a founding member of the newly formed Women in Space Aotearoa New Zealand (WISANZ), which aims to support women and gender minorities already working in the sector and encourage others to join.
Beginning in October, Wisa attracted interest from 200 members across New Zealand.
Now incorporated with its first AGM last month, the group has 70 paying members, who can access newsletters, panel expertise and mentorship to help them get into or navigate the industry.
While open to everyone, it is focused on promoting opportunities for women and gender minorities.
Blyde says there's been a lot of interest from high school students, so they're looking at creating a separate membership just for them.
Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey says women are under-represented globally in the space industry, and it's something they want to change.
"We're working to change that with a goal to increase our percentage of women in our team by a minimum of 3 per cent in 2022.
"We've also set a target of 50 per cent women in our annual internship intake, and came close last year with 44 per cent women interns."
Rocket Lab offers several education pathways including a Space Ambassadors programme, which connects volunteers with schools to give young people an insight into the industry.
More than 350 schools have formally registered with the programme, potentially reaching more than 225,000 young people throughout New Zealand.
An annual scholarship also offers $20,000 across four years to one student, pairing the recipient with a Rocket Lab mentor.
Rocket Lab also created New Zealand's first aerospace apprenticeship, employing 11 apprentices in paid full-time work.
New Zealand's thriving industry
As a seven-year-old obsessed with Star Trek, Julia Rothman, 45, was captivated by space early.
"I think a lot of people are very attracted to space – there's a certain glamour or romance about it – and there was an earlier area of my life where I thought, 'that's what I want to do'. I just couldn't work out how to do it."
She says her optimism is supported by having her start in the US industry, where space is considered a true career path.
She moved there in 2000, working for the United States Air Force where she helped design and launch space systems for the US Government.
As a chief systems engineer, she sourced funding for weather model development and a satellite receiver site - doubling the advance warning time for category 5 hurricanes after Hurricane Katrina. She was also the first to receive Space and Missile Systems Centre and Missile Defence Agency Civilian of the Year awards for negotiating between US and Australian space interests.
"As I look back now, I think I was incredibly fortunate to have the endorsement and the career development that the US Airforce gave me.
"In many ways I might have been discouraged in my 20s if I wasn't working inside that framework."
Rothman returned to New Zealand in 2018 and now is in her dream job.
Rothman oversees the site in Mahia, running the team and managing domestic launches for customers looking to launch a satellite into low-earth orbit.
"We bring out the rocket when it arrives, roll it out to the launch pad, ensure all procedures are done appropriately."
Rothman says there are now so many ways to get into the space sector.
The most classical, direct path overseas is through an aeronautical engineering major, which doesn't exist in New Zealand.
But this isn't necessarily an issue, as the space industry's technical personnel – who make up 60 per cent of the industry – can come from backgrounds such as engineering or computer science.
A technical diploma can also be enough to get a start.
On top of that, Rothman says, there are ample opportunities for the 40 per cent that come from non-technical backgrounds.
"The non-technical really run the gamut – you'll get people with law degrees, you'll get people with commerce, or other business or contractual backgrounds coming into the industry because they're just interested in space."
What she'd like is for high-schoolers and university students to be aware of these opportunities – and not feel that they had to leave New Zealand to find space, as she did.
She also suggests more modules introduced at the primary and intermediate school levels, to ensure the space industry seems more than the pipe-dream of aspiring astronauts.
"I'd really like to promote a system that allows high schoolers and university students to be aware of the various opportunities and know that they don't have to go overseas to find them," she said.
"I want people to know that there's a thriving industry in New Zealand that's growing and becoming more diverse, both in opportunities and in people."
People from all backgrounds can find themselves in the space industry, she says.
"A friend of mine grew up wanting to be a model, and now introduces every launch for the US Space force on video – so she's at every launch.
Space data is all around us
Rothman says New Zealanders probably don't even know how much their lives intertwined with the ballooning space industry.
"It's very tangible, it's very domestic.
"They touch space data all the time – dozens, hundreds of times a day at this point. GPS now is the foundation of the global financial market.
"Anytime we access data now there is an increasing component of it that is in some ways space-related, and that component will likely exponentially increase in the decades to come."
Every interaction that requires a timestamp – such as your ATM receipt – is underpinned by GPS and space data.
"Ongoing timing is incredibly important to the financial industry, because it has to work out to how many hundredths of a second, what a dollar is worth, and it has to do it all the time.
"Anytime there's a timer now for when something globally needs to occur, GPS is involved. And it's just going to keep increasing.
"There's dozens of paths and stopping points before it gets packaged in that way but for GPS, you are getting a triangulation of a location that's feeding directly to you."