When an 11.5 metre German rocket was launched from the tiny South Australian former mission town of Koonibba last Friday, it lit the candle for self-determination and the future of local Indigenous youth.

Warning: This story contains images of Indigenous people who have died.

But one elder says the project risks damaging sacred women’s sites and the next generation’s connection to country.

Southern Launch chief Lloyd Damp visits Ms Coleman-Haseldine in the Yumbarra Conservation Park before the rocket launch.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Kokotha elder Sue Coleman-Haseldine was camped out in the firing line on the rocket range with a handful of supporters to protest the space venture.

However, the majority of the 125 residents of Koonibba — down from a population of 145 in 2016 — supported the launch.

The community negotiated and developed the venture in partnership with Adelaide company Southern Launch over six years.

The partnership is already delivering educational benefits for town’s small school and nearby Ceduna schools, with plans for a space observatory to attract tourists.  

Connection to country

But Ms Coleman-Haseldine has vowed to continue protesting against the site.

She is worried it could help develop weapons technology, the scars of which still plague the lands to the north of Koonibba at Maralinga and Emu Fields, where the Australian and British governments tested nuclear weapons from 1952 to 1963.

Ms Coleman Haseldine was born at the Koonibba Mission in 1951 and said she was no stranger to battles, having addressed the United Nations in 2017 about the impact of those weapons tests at Maralinga.

Walking across a large granite rock outcrop, she points out symbols and talks about the stories of the land.

With family and friends, she has been maintaining and cleaning sacred deep waterholes and clearing dirt and soil washed into shallow surface rock pools, to provide safer drinking holes for emus, kangaroos, birds and reptiles.

Ms Coleman-Haseldine with protesters in Yumbarra Conservation Park.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Amelia Costigan)

She set up camp in the Yumbarra Conservation Park, part of the 41,000 square kilometre rocket launch range, which allows for rocket re-entry and retrievals.

The Yellabinna Wilderness Protection Area to the north is also in the rocket launch range.

“That rocket launching, I think it could start fires, it could just hit one of these rocks and smash it, starting to break the storylines,” Ms Coleman-Haseldine said.

A Department for Environment and Water spokesperson said the department ensured Southern Launch had consulted appropriately with the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation and the Yumbarra Conservation Park Co-management Board.

This was to ensure cultural sites and values were not threatened by rocket launch activities, and to ensure any launches minimised potential risks to endangered species.

“If weather conditions forecast for a launch present an unacceptable fire risk to the parks, the department would work with Southern Launch to postpone the launch,” the spokesperson said.

The launch range is the largest in the southern hemisphere, taking in the Yumbarra Conservation Park.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Ms Coleman-Haseldine said she had been going to the area from childhood and had a custodial role to protect the land, animals and stories.

“This area is all part of the Seven Sisters dreaming,” she said.

“Country gives us bush med, food, teaches the kids out here how to survive.

“And it teaches them respect for the country and each other, and the animals.

Ms Coleman-Haseldine and her friends have been clearing rocky outcrops of soil to restore safe drinking places for animals.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

“It’s our pharmacy, our school, our church. Our spirituality’s out here.

“It’s all those things to us. It’s not just like an unoccupied land. It’s all special.”

Koonibba cultural advisors Wanda Miller, Geraldine Ware and Wendy Ware in front of the SR75 rocket.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Amelia Costigan)

A project for the next generation

The future of the next generation is at the forefront of thinking in the Koonibba community.

Koonibba Aboriginal Community Council chairperson Geraldine Ware said there were already jobs in training and traffic management from the project.

“The community has been involved with them, writing to the government, and we’ve got funding from the government and a lease with Southern Launch,” Ms Ware said.

“It’s here to stay until whenever, for the next generation to take over when we’re gone.”

The joint project marked a significant step in self-determination for the community, but it wasn’t always that way for Koonibba.

The Koonibba Mission Lutheran Church congregation between 1920 and 1930.(Supplied: National Library of Australia)

The Lutheran Church established the Koonibba Mission in 1901 near the traditional lands of the Wirangu, Kokotha and Mirning people.

Records at the South Australian Library show Aboriginal people were employed on the farm, with the quality of wages, rations, food and housing tied to their conversion to Christianity.

Pastor Hoff preaches at an outdoor gathering of Aboriginal families at the Koonibba Mission in 1925.(Supplied: National Library of Australia)

Children were removed from their families and placed in a home on the mission for decades, and in 1958 the population walked off in protest at the control of their lives by the mission.

Expanding horizons

The rocket collaboration has delivered empowerment for the community and its youth.

Koonibba Aboriginal School principal Mark Prince said some of his 28 students had developed rockets and presented at a STEM conference more than 800 kilometres away in Adelaide, with the help of Southern Launch engineers and technicians.

The school intends to present at the conference every year now and share their rocket knowledge.

Koonibba Aboriginal School principal Mark Prince says having scientists in town shows students other careers they can aim for.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Amelia Costigan)

“When you build upon Aboriginal knowledge of aerodynamics through boomerang and spear making in the Woomera, Aboriginal people have been tinkering in aerodynamics for a long, long time,” Mr Prince said.

He said there were many educational benefits from the presence of science-based careers in the town.

“They know what a farmer does, they know what a mechanic, an electrician, a hairdresser [and] a shop assistant [does], they know those jobs quite well … what it does provide us is an opportunity to see a scientist and engineer, a logistics person,” Mr Prince said.

The German rocket has also brought a world focus to the school.

Students from Koonibba have had hands-on experiences with rocket technology.(Supplied: Southern Launch)

“We can talk about the fact that the rocket range the rocket is being launched into is probably bigger than the size of Germany,” Mr Prince said.

“I think the fact that this is the only First Nations rocket launching facility in the world is something that the community can be very proud of.”

Koonibba Aboriginal School students have been able to get up close to rocket science.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The town joins Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory and Abbot Point in northern Queensland, which have both had successful private rocket launches.

The Queensland operation is planning to send the first Australian-built orbital rocket into space this month.

The Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation did not wish to comment on the protest by Ms Coleman-Haseldine.