The Hawaii Supreme Court just voted to temporarily suspend the construction of an enormous telescope on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that some Hawaiian natives consider sacred ground.
We still don’t know the ultimate legal fate of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), but on Nov. 17, the court granted an emergency suspension of the observatory’s building permit until December 2, or until another court order is issued.
The 14,000-foot-tall peak of Mauna Kea is one of native Hawaiians’ most sacred sites, but the thin, clear air offers an incredible view of the cosmos while being accessible to workers and scientists. So it’s arguably the best spot on Earth to build a telescope.
While some Hawaiian natives and astronomers have condemned the telescope, others insist that we must build it. The question of whether to build TMT has dredged up Hawaii’s complicated past, pitted friends and families against one another, and exposed racial insensitivity in the astronomy community.
The two schools of thought are colliding on and off the summit, and compromise has failed. Now a court case is winding its way through Hawaii’s legal system and will require a decision where one group gets shortchanged.
But it seems clear we need to build this telescope, even if it will taint sacred ground.
An economic blessing
TMT Corporation, the nonprofit behind the telescope, estimates its project could inject more than $US150 million to Hawaii’s economy and create 140 high-paying engineering and tech jobs. It also says the construction plan has met all the legal and environmental requirements.
But at least one bitter historical legacy comes to mind for native Hawaiians trying to decide whether or not to support TMT’s construction.
Evidence of that legacy is tucked away in grey building on a side street in the city of Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. There, a memorial signifies a tragic but important moment in Hawaiian history. The building’s walls in one corner are covered with heart-wrenching photos of a tsunami in 1960 that swept over the city, flattening more than 500 homes and businesses and killing 61 people.
A few years after the tsunami, the University of Hawaii (UH) in Hilo tried to pump some fresh life into the devastated economy. It held the lease on Mauna Kea and allowed workers to build the first big telescope on the summit.
The university charged a piteously low rent of $US1 per year for the site. They hoped this would attract more and more astronomers and investors interested in building telescopes; more telescopes would bring more capital and jobs with them.
It worked — sort of.
There are now 13 telescopes on the mountaintop, but they have brought less of an economic boom than expected. Hawaii still consistently ranks among the worst places for business and economics. And this year Hawaii was rated the worst state to do business by CNBC’s annual America’s Top States for Business ranking. Meanwhile, native Hawaiians bear a disproportionate chunk of the economic burden.
The telescopes were supposed to help change that and didn’t. The problem is that most observatory jobs do not go to Hawaiians, Sarah Ballard, an astronomer at the University of Washington, told Tech Insider. Most jobs are outsourced to the universities and organisations that invest in the telescopes.
So Hawaiians have to come to resent the existing telescopes. And the $US1 per year rent is an outdated remnant from a past economic emergency. There’s no reason to keep the rent so low anymore, native Hawaiian astronomer Paul Coleman told Tech Insider.
“We know that we don’t have to entice astronomy to come to Hawaii anymore,” Coleman said. “Because we know that the work that’s come out of the telescopes that are already here have been so good that everybody wants to come here no matter what — it’s the best sight on earth for observing.”
The TMT corporation knows Mauna Kea is in high demand, so it has deviated from the business-as-usual approach.
It voluntarily pledged to pay the market-value of the land, not the fixed price from UH. TMT representatives also spent years speaking with locals on the big island. The message was clear — Hawaii needs resources to take care of the mountain, and it needs more jobs for native Hawaiians.
So TMT put together a plan where, if it gets a 50-year lease on Mauna Kea, it will usher in tons of jobs reserved for native Hawaiians and $US150 million in community benefits.
Here’s how that money breaks down over 50 years:
- TMT will pay $US1 million per year for its space on the summit. Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Management group is tasked with preserving and protecting the mountain, and it will get 80% of the rent. The remaining 20% will go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs that works to improve the wellbeing of native Hawaiians.
- TMT has committed to a $US1 million per year community benefit package. This will go toward a STEM-education program for Hawaiian students called the THINK fund. TMT has already started contributing to this fund.
- TMT is also setting up an annual $US1 million fund to help funnel local Hawaiians into observatory jobs. Called the Workforce Pipeline Program, it will partner with local colleges and the Department of Education to create training programs, internships, and summer jobs for the kinds of engineering and tech positions required to operate and maintain the telescope.
This sets the an incredibly high standard that can only benefit Hawaii in the future.
TMT could change how we understand the universe
In addition to invigorating the economy of Hawaii while acknowledging past slights, this telescope could launch the state to the forefront of astronomy.
Michael Bolte, the associate director of TMT, thinks the telescope has the chance to change astronomy forever — the same way that Hubble and the Keck telescopes revolutionised the field.
TMT’s giant 30-meter mirror will capture more light than any other ground telescope, and all that light will let us see farther out into the universe, and therefore farther back into our universe’s past.
The telescope will bring an unprecedented view of the cosmos and take pictures of parts of the universe no one has ever seen. We’ll be able to glimpse the very first stars and galaxies that formed after the big bang. Astronomers call these “first light objects” and they will give us more insight into one of the most fundamental questions of life: Where did we come from?
TMT doesn’t have a shot at answering that question if it’s not built on Mauna Kea. The summit sits above the cloud line providing a crystal-clear window into space. The dry air will make it possible to take some of the sharpest images we’ve ever seen.
Hawaii’s complicated past
Despite the huge benefits TMT will bring, construction has been postponed since April when crowds of protesters gathered to block vehicles from driving up the mountain. Over the summer TMT tried to resume construction, but the protesters were ready.
On June 24, standing almost 10,000 feet up the shoulder of Mauna Kea, I listened as hundreds of protesters chanted ancient Hawaiian prayers and songs, and drums kept time in the background.
Many wore kapa shawls, loincloths, and leis. Others carried picket signs with messages like “Protect the mountain” and “Bulldoze your own temple!” Some even prayed over and placed leis on the shoulders of the very police officers who were there to remove them.
They are touted as protesters, but the people call themselves “mountain protectors.” And the more I spoke with natives, the more I sensed the complexity of their cause.
Yet astronomy is woven deep into Hawaii’s history. It’s how the first Hawaiians navigated their way to the island chain. With the potential to unlock secrets to the origin of the universe, Coleman said the early Hawaiians would have celebrated TMT, not rejected it. He told me his ancestors would probably be digging right alongside the construction crew if they were alive today.
After talking with many natives, it’s clear to me that none are against astronomy. The issue stems from a much deeper place.
This isn’t really about a telescope
The controversy behind the telescope reached a very public and unpleasant climax in April.
University of California astronomers Alex Filippenko and Sandy Faber, who are want to use TMT for their research, sent out a tasteless mass email urging astronomers to sign a petition supporting TMT.
The problem was the opening line:
“The Thirty-Meter Telescope is in trouble, attacked by a horde of angry native Hawaiians…”
The racially-charged language instantly divided the astronomy community. “If you think this is about science or a telescope, then you’re missing the point of the protesters,” John Johnson, a professor of astronomy at Harvard, told Tech Insider.
Johnson and many other, argue that the heart of the Hawaiian protest comes from the island’s complicated colonial past.
Foreign meddling and exploitation in Hawaii started when European explorer Captain Cook landed at the islands in 1778, culminating in 1898 when the US government annexed the islands through a loose process that only required a majority vote in Congress. Hawaii had its own government and cultural traditions before any foreign presence landed there, and many petitions and protesters sought to prevent the annexation and the overthrow of Hawaii’s last monarch Queen, Lili’uokalani.
Johnson said many see TMT as an extension of colonial suppression. Notably, the telescope is a collaboration between universities in California, India, China, and Japan — it does not include any Hawaiian university or group. So it seems like just another example of a foreign influence stepping in and doing whatever it likes with land that does not belong to them.
“When people can acknowledge there are problems with coming in and building this telescope, and then say ‘but we still want our telescope,’ that’s exactly the problem,” Johnson said. “When you steal [the land on Mauna Kea] and everybody knows it, maybe you should give it back.”
Ballard agrees that the telescope is a symbol of suppression. She said she doesn’t think it should be built if TMT can’t reach an agreement with natives.
It’s a complex issue that I can never fully understand, since I am not native Hawaiian. But the issue became more clear to me in a single moment at the protest in June, when I saw a man climb atop a ladder in the middle of the road to block the telescope construction vehicles from driving up the mountain.
He waved an upside-down US flag as a symbol of political protest and declared that Hawaii has had enough foreign tampering. He continued his speech even when the police officers threatened to arrest him:
After reading more about Hawaii’s history, I have to agree with him.
But from my vantage, colonialism is a separate issue from TMT: The corporation has taken so many steps to acknowledge the sleights of the past and ensure that the telescope’s construction will benefit native Hawaiians.
Coleman said it’s unfortunate that some choose to take out their frustrations with Hawaii’s colonial past on TMT. Hawaiians have been wronged many times in the past, but this is not the way to set things right. The protesters are missing a way to celebrate their astronomy-rich culture and are turning their backs on a huge economic boost to the economy.
With a history as rough as theirs, however, I don’t think anyone can blame them for feeling the way they do.
The future of Hawaii
The most harmful consequence of the protest movement is how it might influence future investment in Hawaii. Critics of the protest movement say no one will want to risk bankrolling a big project in the state if it could be met with the same kind of resistance as TMT.
It’s a shame that compromise has failed, and it all hinges on a court battle now.
“[The protesters] have said this time and again — they will be against it forever,” Coleman said. “Which I think is kind of a silly thing to say, because what if TMT starts running and everybody starts doing really well and loving the extra money that’s pouring into the economy, and more and more jobs are being dedicated to Hawaiian people?”
Hawaiians have always been incredibly adaptable and forward-thinking people, Coleman told me. They have always embraced new technology when it will benefit them and make life better for their people.
That’s what TMT could do for Hawaii, if the people will let it.
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