24 July 2023

When Tim Searle looks to the skies at night he doesn't just see stars – he sees opportunity.

More specifically, Tim sees an opportunity to harness world-leading innovations to improve people's lives.

Tim works at the New Zealand Space Agency, which is part of Hīkina Whakatutuki Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The Agency is the lead government agency for space policy, regulation and business development relating to outer space and high-altitude activities from New Zealand. 

As a Principal Policy Advisor, Tim's work covers a number of areas which fall under the space umbrella, including: developing policy, negotiation of international agreements, and the design of R+D investments. 

He sums up the benefits of his work simply:

“Essentially, I accelerate the development of New Zealand’s space sector linking people, ideas, and technologies.”

Isaac Hollis, MBIE Science and Innovation Counsellor – Europe, and Tim Searle

So, what kind of technology? Well, Tim says space tech is everywhere, right down to the clothes we wear.

“Space is the hardest place to develop technology for. People don't realise that some advances in non-intuitive areas like clothing technology came about because it was being designed for use in space.”

Other examples include cordless power tools, scratchless lenses, mask filters, cooling systems, the technology behind faster computers and mobile phone cameras – you name it.

Tim says an important use of space technology in New Zealand is in helping people better respond to climate change and natural disaster events – which is one current area of work.

For example, radar technology using satellites or planes can be used to monitor sea ice and coastal erosion, and can also be used to track water levels following storms or flooding.

Then there are satellite communications, which are vital during and following natural disasters when cell coverage and internet access are down.

"By leveraging some of these space assets we can improve our resilience in the face of emergencies and natural disasters,” Tim says.

While not a space agency at the scale or even in the style of NASA, we have a valuable network of partner agencies, Tim says.

An example is our collaboration with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) to work on joint science and technology projects. Tim helped lead the partnership. 

“New Zealand has a relatively small space budget so it's about leveraging our relationships with the bigger players to deliver crucial technology to New Zealanders that they wouldn't otherwise have access to.”

In May, the government launched our first National Space Policy, which sets out Aotearoa New Zealand’s values and high-level objectives for space activities.

Tim says there are some major space challenges, too.

The major risk is the pollution of orbits, plus there’s the potential weaponisation of space, and debates around how much should be seen – and how much data should be collected – from space.

Tim Searle with NASA employees at the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy

As with any global challenge or opportunity, having a seat at the table is crucial for small countries like ours.

“If you're not involved at the beginning, then you don't get a say right at the start, and then you have to be a follower.”

Having a say is what New Zealand excels at, Tim says.

“We have no internal research capability. However, we have pockets of the world’s best and most talented space researchers. New Zealand is famous for its space policy.”

In 2022, Tim was a finalist in Te Hāpai Hapori | Spirit of Service Awards, which recognise public servants and initiatives that exemplify the spirit of service and demonstrate an outstanding commitment to New Zealand.

In his citation he was praised for being generous with his knowledge, and for having a transformational impact on the success of our space sector.

He's now been part of the New Zealand Space Agency since 2019, and says he is driven by a belief in the capability of the space sector to deliver economic, environmental, and social benefits for the whole country.

"Ultimately, it's all about delivering value to the public.

“For me, working in the Public Service is the most direct way to make a difference in people's lives.

“My job is to supply the data and the evidence that can bring about positive change in New Zealand.”