Rocket ships and flying boats — 50 years after Apollo in New Zealand

‘Roads? Where we going, we don’t need roads.’ – Dr Emmett Brown, Back to the Future


At 3:17 am this coming 21 July (NZST), it will be 50 years since Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility — fulfilling John F Kennedy’s bold mission with five months and about 15 seconds of fuel to spare.

The day before he was assassinated in Texas in November 1963 Kennedy had said: ‘This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.’ The cost of following America’s cap all the way to the moon was of course immense, but Apollo will be forever regarded as one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements (as well as by many as our biggest folly).

Counting the cost — and other impressive stats

The statistics behind the Apollo programme are huge even by today’s standards — 400,000 employees and about US$290 billion in 2019 dollars — about 5% of US GDP at the time.

Beginning from an almost standing start in the early 1960s, Project Apollo produced machines the power of which have yet to be surpassed, using highly experimental navigational and computing technology. Some of the materials used hadn’t even been invented when the programme began.

Standing fully fuelled on the launch pad, one of Apollo’s Saturn V rockets weighed nearly 3,000 tonnes. It needed to pack 72,000 kg of brawn to place 1 kg of payload into lunar orbit, and each kilo cost US$30,000 (in 2016 dollars) to get there. Every component of the leviathan had to be as small and as light as possible, otherwise the whole thing would never get off the ground.

How do we do this?

When Kennedy announced the Apollo programme in 1961, nobody really knew how to navigate to the moon without either crashing into it or flying off into deep space. The moon exists in three-dimensional unconstrained space — no sense of up or down, left or right, or north or south. It’s also easy to forget that the moon is orbiting the earth at 3,600 km/hr.

To get to the moon you don’t aim at it directly. You need to do some ‘deflection shooting’, aiming somewhere ahead of it so that you arrive at a point in space at the exact same time as the moon does (or, more accurately, just ahead of it by about 100 km). From 384,000 km away on launch day, that gives you a margin of error of about 0.03%.

The few digital computers that existed in the early ’60s occupied entire buildings, and they couldn’t be relied on to work for more than a few days at a time. Project Apollo required a small, lightweight guidance and navigation unit that could process complex trajectory equations and issue real-time guidance commands to the spacecraft during the flight. And of course it couldn’t break down.

In August 1961 no such thing existed, so NASA awarded the very first Project Apollo contract, for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop the Apollo Guidance System. In 1962 MIT’s Charles Stark Draper took the very bold step of using newly invented integrated circuits. By 1963 MIT had ordered and consumed some 60 percent of the world’s then-available supply of integrated circuitry just to build the Apollo Guidance System. Their triumph was a ‘micro’ computer that weighed about 30 kg, was the size of a shoe box, and had 2 KB of memory and 32 KB of storage, just enough to achieve the seemingly impossible.

On the way to inventing ‘software’: Programmer Margaret Hamilton with Apollo source code (NASA). Image source: 

What do I get?

When you spend nearly 300 billion in 2019 dollars, as NASA did getting to the moon, people will want to know what the world got for the effort, other than bragging rights and 382 kilos of rock. It turns out the world got quite a lot.

Somewhat inadvertently, Apollo massively accelerated things that were at an early development stage or used only by the military — to the point where they transformed Kennedy’s potentially dangerous bet into a reality, and fundamentally changed our ways of life for the better. Apollo is a great example of invention and innovation being spurred by a bold public challenge.

For instance the early NASA/MIT requirement for an Apollo Guidance System helped spur the computer industry into further developing, producing and marketing integrated circuits to the world, along with development of the semiconductor technology on which integrated circuitry depends. By 2013, the global software industry was worth US$407.3 billion (), and by 2017 the semiconductor industry was worth US$412.2 billion (). Today almost everything we do, and the digital tools we use, are driven by technology that was massively accelerated by the Apollo programme.

From Houston to Mahia: Our own Rocket Lab

While NASA continues with important primary research and development, a whole raft of new private-sector innovators and entrepreneurs are getting on with doing things much more cheaply — including getting into Earth orbit, to the moon, and maybe even to Mars. The democratisation of space has opened up the field for everybody, including New Zealand.

Rocket Lab is now making regular launches from its site on the Mahia Peninsula. Their rockets are small by global standards — capable of launching 150 kg payloads (CubeSats and other micro-payloads) into a 500 km orbit. But the achievement is extraordinary given New Zealand’s small size compared to the other 16 members of the global rocket club. In any case, in an industry where everything is miniaturising, smaller really is better. Suddenly too, being a long way from the crowded parts of the world (with their busy air and sea spaces) has its advantages too.

Rocket Lab’s ‘Rutherford’ and ‘Curie’ rocket engines are the first in the world to be battery-powered and 3D-printed. Their design massively reduces the cost of manufacturing a rocket engine — a huge factor when these parts are 100% destroyed in the launch process (although Space X is finding ways around that with its reusable Falcon rockets).

From space to New Zealand water

The ability to reduce complexity, improve performance, and reduce cost in the production of an ultra-high-performance powerplant could be something that attracts the attention of more earth-bound transport manufacturers and innovators — especially as New Zealand contemplates being at the forefront of non-fossil fuel transport and energy generation systems.

For example, there are many real-world connections and parallels between the America’s Cup and the aerospace industry, including Rocket Lab, and these are increasing.

Since Australia II shook the sport in 1983 with its radical keel technology, America’s Cup defenders and challengers have partnered with developers in the aerospace, computing and advanced materials fields to find the next performance breakthrough. In fact, for the past two iterations of the Cup and the upcoming defence in Auckland in 2020/21, the craft are more or less ‘aircraft’ — when they’re at speed, their rudders and foils are their only connection with the water.

In New Zealand, innovation has centred around the use of composite materials and technology, starting with the controversial decision to build fibreglass hulls in 1987. This has continued through subsequent defences and challenges to all areas of spars, hulls and appendage development, where New Zealand composite engineers have excelled.

Southern Spars is a stand-out here. The constructor of masts for winning campaigns since Steinlager 2 in 1989 and Team New Zealand in 1995, Southern Spars built the winning Emirates Team New Zealand boat for the last America’s Cup in Bermuda, and is a major supplier for the upcoming defence. Globally, it has a more than 80% market share of superyacht masts and is the main spar-maker for most of the world’s high-performance yacht syndicates.

And here’s one of those space–yachting connections: the body of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is uniquely constructed from carbon-fibre composite materials, and the people Rocket Lab hired to design and build it were from Southern Spars and Emirates Team NZ.

One of Aotearoa’s Cup-winning composite hulls is moved 
at the Southern Spars facility in Avondale, Auckland. 
Image source: 


Core Composite Builders in Warkworth are also doing exciting things here. Owned by previous Cup winner and Oracle owner Larry Ellison, the firm is similarly dedicated not only to high-performance yachts, but also to building and other sport technology. For example, the firm says it’s also been active in developing a composite design for ‘SkyPath’, a walking-cycling clip onto the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

The latest yachting technology has also now converged with the world of advanced computing and virtual reality. Emirates Team NZ are doing a large proportion of their training using digital simulations rather than on the water, in order to save time and money and reduce risk.

A chain of innovation

Might the New Zealand aerospace effort produce entirely new industries out of what are at presently just laboratory experiments? What if in the future our everyday vehicles were made entirely from composite materials (themselves created from sequestered CO2), self-driven using super-advanced digital, inertial and GPS technology, and powered by 3D-printed hydrogen fuel plants — all derived from a long chain of innovation right from Apollo through Rocket Lab to Team New Zealand?

And who is to say those vehicles will travel only on roads? Just as Apollo learned how to navigate in space, maybe soon everyday travel will also be 3D — on land, in the air and space, and on (or just above) the water. Come to think of it, with the advances of VR/AR maybe we won’t need to travel at all to be somewhere else?

That may all be nothing more than Doc Brown fantasy. But as a country we should be doing our best to nurture the ongoing growth and success of the entire aerospace sector in New Zealand — all the way from rockets and drones, through to remote sensing, composite manufacturing, and virtual reality software.

And if along the way all that hi-tech innovation helps us hold on to the America’s Cup in 2021, we probably won’t be complaining about that either.

Harvey Brookes, dwarfed by a Saturn V at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, 2019

About the author

Harvey Brookes

A regional economic development expert with nearly 30 years’ experience focusing on Auckland and the Waikato, Harvey Brookes has held senior and executive roles in local and central government and regional development organisations.

Harvey brings a strong inter-disciplinary and outcomes-based approach, and a proven track record of working with stakeholders and partners to develop enduring solutions to complex problems and opportunities. His approach blends together a unique combination of strategic thinking, applied science, performance excellence, public policy and industry development.

Since late 2015 Harvey’s main focus has been economic development in the Waikato, and he is now based in Hamilton. In 2015 he led the region’s economic development programme, and oversaw the design, funding and establishment of Te Waka — the region’s first economic development agency (EDA).

Harvey Brookes, Lead for Waikato and the Bay of Plenty at MartinJenkins

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