Look up from the bottom
Robin McNeill has worked in the telecommunications industry all over the world, but there is something about Southland that keeps him going backwards. Riley Kennedy speaks with the man on mission to secure the region’s share of the burgeoning global space industry.
Robin McNeill loves space.
His passion began at the age of 5 in Auckland when his best friend’s father got a scholarship to the University of Michigan to study radio astronomy and his work ended up being used in the Apollo program.
âSo my best friend’s dad helped get Neil Armstrong to the moon,â Mr. McNeill said.
After graduating as an engineer from the University of Canterbury in 1981, he moved to Invercargill to work for the New Zealand Post Office, and later, after its division in 1987, to Telecom NZ, building exchanges telephone and underground cables and microwave radios. connections.
It was his viola teacher who encouraged him to move to the south of the city, saying he would make lifelong friends.
“She was right – my wife and I live here by choice and it’s good that I have a job that I love and that I can do it in a part of the world where I love to live.”
After spending almost 20 years at New Zealand Post and Telecom NZ, he worked for a start-up and the United Nations.
Earlier this month, Mr McNeill was appointed managing director of the newly formed Space Operations New Zealand Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Great South.
The company operates the Awaruaå ground station, between Invercargill and Bluff, which has 35 large antennas used to send information to satellites, passing above between 400 km and 800 km, and also downloads information from the satellites.
The space company started operating in 2004, but was part of the Great South Region Economic Development Agency.
At the time, the European Space Agency needed a lower range station for a launch campaign and turned to Venture Southland, the previous incarnation of Great South, for help.
Already working at the agency, and with his love for space, Mr McNeill was quick to respond “of course we can”.
In 2009, he wrote Southland’s first space strategy, which was perhaps the country’s only space strategy at the time.
He admitted that it was seen as something out of the box to work on, with New Zealand not really keen on being a part of the space industry.
The new stand-alone subsidiary was formed after it was recognized that the economic development agency was there to encourage growth, not to support the growth itself.
Mr. McNeill felt that this gave the organization a direction it was difficult to have before.
âWe were probably the only space company in the world that made Shakespeare in the Park as well as support rockets,â he said.
Mr McNeill thought the space industry was very collaborative – “even the competitors help each other a little.”
âWe knew we were in a very big time when a big space company called us for advice.
âIt’s better than where we were 10 years ago, when it was the other way around,â he said.
While Mr McNeill’s career had largely been in Southland, he could also claim that he had helped connect a country to the world.
For two years in the mid-1990s, he and his family lived in Tokelau, a small island territory near Samoa with a population of just 1,500.
Mr. McNeill worked for the United Nations, modernizing the country’s telecommunications system.
When they arrived, the territory had a shortwave radio link that linked its three atolls – Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu – to Apia in Samoa.
He was commissioned to design and build a “micro-Telecom NZ” for the country called “Teletok”.
It involved everything from drafting the legislation, determining who was going to own it, and building the infrastructure.
âBy the time we left the phones were ringing very loud,â he said.
He also did the same for the shortwave radio system at Scott Base in Antarctica.
Telecom NZ wanted to install an antenna and Mr. McNeill was again tasked with redesigning the base radio communication away from the shortwave system.
Building a foundation for an antenna on the ice was a bit different, by the way.
âYou drilled a big hole, then put the heap down and spilled a 44 gallon barrel of boiling water in it.
âThe cold water was not good because it froze halfway,â he said.
Most of the projects were largely completed in New Zealand and only required about two weeks in the field.
Mr McNeill compared his career in the space industry to the Neil Armstrong film, First Man.
âNeil has his head down, working hard, studying hard and every once in a while he looks up and looks at the moon and says ‘wow’.
âWe’re kind of the same. We looked up and saw the International Space Station go by and I thought ‘wow that’s us’,â he said.
Not so long ago, McNeill released the strategy he wrote for the region 12 years ago to examine how far the southern space industry has come.
Some things had changed but “basically we are doing what we set out to do and we will continue to add value in the future”.
Putting business goals aside, Mr McNeill’s ultimate dream is to send a student at a Southland school into space.
âIf we can’t do that, we just want to get them excited about it,â he said.