Leadership Network member's circuitous trajectory into space

Like most kids, the stars held a fascination for Leadership Network member Justine Roberts, and now, with a law degree and a stint at MFAT behind her, she is working for the New Zealand Space Agency, helping to develop New Zealand's space policy. Justine, who grew up in Gisborne, has Filipino heritage and is on an "ongoing journey" to learn the language. This month, she was appointed to the Leadership Network's Advisory Board.
A head photo of Justine Roberts

Justine Roberts

Ask any child what they dream of being when they grow up and ‘astronaut’ is high up the list. 

In fact, in China, more than half of eight to 12 year olds say that is what they would most like to be when they grow up. 

Justine Roberts remembers looking up at the night sky with fascination as a kid and, while she is not quite an astronaut, she is working for the New Zealand Space Agency.

The New Zealand Space Agency? Yep, it sits within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and Justine is a principal policy advisor there. 

Born and raised in Gisborne, post-high school Justine headed to the capital, where she attended Victoria University, completed an arts degree in international relations and criminology and a law degree, and then got admitted to the bar. 

Justine as a young child riding with her parents in a bicycle sidecar

Justine on her first visit to the Philippines (sitting on father's lap)

At university she worked at a few smaller law firms, and then decided to change direction. 

“I went straight into the public sector following university - I started as a grad at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I was there for five and a half years.” 

When it comes to policy, she sees herself as something of an all-rounder. 

A chunk of her work focused on the Pacific, including leading a Pacific broadcasting project, working on Pacific Islands fora in Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, and completing short offshore relief assignments to Suva and Honolulu. 

She was also a private secretary to three ministers of foreign affairs, where she frequently engaged with diplomats from Asia, including through work visits to Myanmar and Vietnam. 

In her last role at MFAT, she engaged on trade policy, leading the development of a public consultation which informed New Zealand trade policy Trade for All. 

One of her professional strengths is her ability to “explain technical information in a simplified way”. She believes accessible information is key when engaging with the public and has sought to share those practices with others. 

She was able to flex this muscle on her last pre-Covid work trip to an APEC Forum. There, she represented New Zealand by presenting on the public consultation process that informed New Zealand’s trade policy.

Her experiences in Southeast Asia are not purely professional.

Justine has Filipino heritage. 

“My mum migrated here in the ‘80s and I've always had a very strong influence through going back to the Philippines. 

“I'm on an ongoing journey to learn the Filipino language.”

Five people on quad bikes with a volcanic mountain in the background

Justine and family taking on some adventurous tourism during their latest visit to the Philippines

Joining the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network has helped support her on that journey.

“I’ve never really found a place in New Zealand that can offer in-person tuition…so, I guess I was trying to also meet like-minded people who were also keen to connect and explore their culture, maybe having grown up in New Zealand as well.” 

So, back to the space agency, where Justine found herself after her stint with MFAT.

“Basically, it’s about facilitating the growth of the space sector in New Zealand, but also making sure that it's regulated safely. 

“Policy is all about creating the frameworks and the means to do that, and it’s been a really rewarding role.”

It has involved something of a crash course in the subject. 

“Obviously space is not my academic background, but I really enjoy how the policy skill set can mean that you get across a lot of different subject matter areas and engage with experts in those fields - I see myself as quite a generalist in that respect.”

She’s now been in the role for almost four years.

Her latest project: Engaging with New Zealanders on values and objectives with respect to space. This is something that hasn’t been undertaken before, and one of the main goals is to create the country’s first national space policy.

“Space policy interests me because it's a developing and fast-paced area, and being able to distil values and objectives, even at a very high level, has been very rewarding. 

“I feel like people think of space policy as ‘super niche’, but I don’t see it that way. Space data, for example, has such a wide applicability to so many areas in New Zealand’s interests.” 

Take the recent natural disasters we’ve had, she says.

“Earth observation, data, for example, can really assist with the timeliness of how we respond. It can give real-time data.” 

Justine speaking as part of a panel with two others with a sign behind them reading APEC Capability Workshop

Justine presenting on the public consultation process that informed New Zealand’s trade policy at an APEC forum

She says, “some Kiwis can be surprised to learn the country has a space agency and can also be surprised to learn that our space sector is broader than launch alone”.

People have often heard of Rocket Lab, and they are a key player, but people aren’t usually aware of the broader space sector in New Zealand, she says.

“We engage with a range of different companies, organisations and academics.” 

At the heart of it is working “to facilitate the growth of the sector”, she says.

“But we need to do that in a responsible, safe way.”