Dimitri Geidelberg, LLB, BCA

Business and law graduate Dimitri Geidelberg is helping New Zealand’s space industry to blast off.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in the Ukraine and came with my family to New Zealand when I was four. I’ve lived most of my life in Wellington. I went to Wellington College and then onto Victoria University of Wellington where I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce and Administration.

My early career was with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) where I had three postings to Australia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Then in 2016 I started at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in the Science, Innovation, and International branch. I am now working as a Principal Advisor with the New Zealand Space Agency.

What were some of your strongest memories of studying law?

I had a phenomenally rich experience, studying during a time when major reforms in public law were happening. I had Geoffrey Palmer for public law and Bill Hastings who at the time was with the Indecent Publications Tribunal, so there was this element of lecturers who weren’t just academics, they were also practitioners who were very influential in helping shape the law.

What were your plans on leaving university?

I enjoyed my law degree, but I came to realise I didn't want to be a lawyer. I enjoyed travelling, and spoke a couple of other languages, so working somewhere in the international sphere was quite attractive. When I found out about the MFAT graduate programme, I applied and was quite pleased when I got selected for the intake in 1998.

Have there been any moments throughout your career that stand out?

It's some of the toughest stuff that stands out the most. I was with the New Zealand High Commission in Suva during a period of political unrest. During normal times you’re respected and well looked-after by the host government. But when the relationship is being tested, when unpopular things are being said, it can be hard and very stressful. Your focus is on trying to get the relationship back on an even keel. But it is these situations I think, that bring out the best in people.

Another thing is that I’ve been very fortunate to work with amazing people in New Zealand, such as Simon Murdoch, Mike Green, and Peter Crabtree, as well as with incredible people in Pacific governments, NGOs and within regional Pacific organisations. There are some truly dedicated people who make it all worthwhile.

You spent over 15 years working in foreign affairs and international development, before moving into science and innovation with MBIE, can you share more about that move?

I did a short contract with MBIE on an international science strategy and negotiating a science innovation agreement treaty with Australia which was signed in early 2017. I was really brought in because of my experiences in international relations, and in particular my experiences in Australia. Later I began working on the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project, managing projects and being part of international treaty negotiations. I then made the move to the New Zealand Space Agency where a lot of my work is still very much internationally focused.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the New Zealand Space Agency does?

The New Zealand Space Agency is part of the Science, Innovation and International branch at MBIE. There are three broad functions: one is regulating outer space and high-altitude activities under the Outer Space and High-altitude Act 2017, the second is on space policy, so that’s work on policy development which includes assessments around opportunities and risks associated with the use of space.

The third function, the bit that I’m involved in, is around developing a successful space sector—growing an industry and having a thriving research community around space. Some of the things we do include negotiating agreements with other space agencies or government entities, for instance with NASA or DLR (the German Aerospace Center). We also work closely with MBIE science colleagues on designing and implementing space technology collaborations that these agreements enable.

Given the rising interest in the sector, is there also increasing interest from students and young people now looking at a career in space?

I think there is a growing realisation that New Zealand does space and it’s taken a few years to sink in. Even with rocket launches happening it probably doesn’t feel quite real, but now I think it is starting to. So, we’re definitely seeing more interest, particularly what’s happening more broadly with the likes of Rocket Lab, and with newer companies such as Dawn Aerospace. The Space Institute is offering a Master in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Auckland, and there is new and interesting research happening in Canterbury.

The New Zealand Space Agency has a range of education and outreach activities, and it’s a growing portfolio, with competitions like NASA Scientist for a Day for school students, online resources for teachers, and also what is effectively a travelling exhibition that focuses on New Zealand and New Zealand space. For the last few years, we’ve also offered internships with NASA, although that has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

And finally, what's next for you?

Well, I've got the coolest job in government! I think professionally I would like to build on some of the successes over the last few years, in particular our flagship initiative, the MethaneSAT mission, a state-of-the-art satellite designed to detect global methane emissions. We’ve got the building blocks in place now and we’re working to get that up and running. I’m keen to continue to work on our key partnerships with NASA and DLR to get more collaboration going, identify new partnerships, and find opportunities to involve more researchers and New Zealand companies in the space sector.