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Picking winners(??) again

29 July 2020

The New Zealand government has an appalling record when it comes to picking winners in the sci-tech fields.

I have honestly lost count of the number of columns I've written berating the government for throwing money away on ridiculous concepts and startups that it was clear, right from day one, were never going to become viable businesses.

The most recent of these was the Martin Jetpack and I was a strong critic right from day one. Never the less, a million or so taxpayer dollars was squandered on this "one man's folly" of an idea that eventually crashed and burned, as predicted.

Way back at the start of the year another of these tech initiatives was announced and I also challenged the sensibility and economic viability of what was being claimed for it.

On the 20th of January I wrote a column titled Will this fly? in which I expressed concern that significant sums of public money were about to be thrown at Dawn Aerospace in the Waitaki District of NZ.

My "spidey-senses" were set a tingling by the "test flight" of their new "unmanned rocket propelled space plane" -- which appeared to actually be little more than a store-bought jet-powered RC model aircraft with a tiny rocket motor added to the tail.

I suggested that this was a very poor candidate for public money and that the concept of "flying" a payload to the upper reaches of the atmosphere was hardly a new or innovative concept. If it was such a great idea, why wasn't it already in regular use?

Well the MBIE obviously didn't agree because they threw a big fist-full of taxpayers' money at the company and now I see they've just dumped another pile-o-spin on the media.

According to this story, Dawn Aerospace has unveiled its "Mk-II Aurora" unmanned space plane.

Or did they?

Excuse me?

All I see is another RC model. For some reason the NZH didn't include the "supplied" pictures of the new craft but TechCrunch did.

Now let's be *very* clear, the model you see in those pictures is not something that will be fulfilling the promise made by Dawn to its investors. To be honest, I could have built the very same thing (likely for a lot less money) using off-the-shelf parts.

A fancy piece of fibreglass does not a space-vehicle make.

In fact, fancy pieces of fibreglass are a dime a dozen. Anyone remember this?.

Yep, we all know how the Snark, a "revolutionary" new piece of aerospace kit from former MP Trevor Rogers turned out (clue: Mr Rogers ended up in jail.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not for one minute suggesting that Dawn Aerospace is anything but a legitimate attempt to create a new "unmanned space plane" service, however I do think the commercial viability of their plans are a little "questionable".

Sure, NZ has had some wonderful success in this area in the form of RocketLab but I can't help get the feeling that Dawn's ability to raise funding may have come more from riding on the shoulders of those giants than on the actual practical merits of this "space plane" concept.

Certainly if I was the MBIE or a private investor, I'd be looking for something a lot more tangible than a large RC model with a roman candle on the tail as an indicator of the company's technical prowess and their ability to fulfill the stated objectives.

I sure hope I'm going to be proven wrong on this one but only time will tell. Let's do a little retrospective in a few year's time when Dawn Aerospace will either have become a thriving service provider -- or when it does a Martin Aerospace-like dive into receivership.

Place your bets ladies and gentlemen!

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