The construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has become a symbol of many issues that swirl in these islands. It is an argument that touches the fundamental question as to who we are and where we are going.

While many frame the argument as one between science and culture, others frame it as one of development versus culture. Their premise is that somehow building another telescope is destroying local culture. They overlook the opportunity the telescopes represent, that the right economic development can support a community, preserve a culture.

Supporters of TMT highlight the jobs that the telescope will bring. “It is not about the jobs!” opponents reply.

Of course it is. You cannot maintain a culture in poverty. You cannot maintain a culture when your keiki leave to seek opportunity elsewhere. Leave the island behind, leave the culture behind. Economic struggle is the greatest single threat to a local culture, a threat that cannot be overstated.

Masked security guard with shades watches demonstrators sing and pray near TMT construction equipment. 10 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A masked security guard watches demonstrators sing and pray near TMT construction equipment during a protest in 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The lack of economic opportunity has an enormous impact on a local community. The stress of struggling for a living, of getting by on a low-paying service industry job can be destructive to families and individuals. Drug use, family abuse, all of the social ills so often identified in low-income areas are as destructive to the culture as they are to the person. The statistics tell the story: Hawaii Island routinely tops the rest of the state in numbers that are not good — lowest per capita income, highest number of children living in poverty, highest unemployment and more.

Astronomy is not the entire answer. It is, however, a major pillar supporting the island community. In 2012 alone, $58 million was brought into the Hawaii Island community by observatories. This money was used to buy goods and services and cover payroll.

Money brought from the outside has a much larger impact, as it is spent and re-spent through the community. Payroll gets spent on groceries, meals and vegetables at the local farmers market, rent and more. This spending cycle magnifies the effect so that the economic impact of that $58 million was estimated to be $91 million for Hawaii Island alone. The important part to remember is that this money comes from elsewhere; the observatories bring it here, funds that would not otherwise be available.

Telescope opponents routinely decry that the opportunities of astronomy are not open to them, that the observatories do not hire locals. They could not be more wrong. The observatories hire local first; only if a qualified person cannot be found locally does the job go to an outsider. This should be no surprise. A local hire is less trouble and less costly, carrying with it no relocation expenses, and the new employee is less likely to leave after being trained in the position.

Astronomy is not the entire answer. It is, however, a major pillar supporting the island community. In 2012 alone, $58 million was brought into the Hawaii Island community by observatories.

The largest observatory, the W. M. Keck Observatory, features a staff of whom more than half were hired locally. This is typical of the Mauna Kea Observatories. The mountain crews reflect the island community, a rich cultural blend that shows the best of who we are.

It is another oft-repeated misconception that only scientists get to step inside the observatories, that somehow the observatories exist apart from the community. Again, this is simply wrong. The local staff members who maintain and operate the telescopes are very much part of the community.

Most of the astronomers who use the Mauna Kea Observatories do not live or work here. They belong to universities and research institutes across the globe. They come here for a few days, use the telescopes and then go home.

Astronomers do not fix telescopes. Mechanics, welders, electricians, engineers and technicians fix telescopes. You do not need people who can do complex differential equations on the summit crews. You need folks who can swing a wrench. The Keck Observatory job listings currently show five openings. Three are for jobs that do not require an advanced education — two machinists and a technician.

Beyond those directly employed by the observatories, dozens of local businesses depend on observatory spending, in turn supporting dozens upon dozens more jobs. On any given day, you can stand on the Mauna Kea access road and watch the trucks of local businesses go by on their way to the summit.  Elevator repairmen, fire alarm service, water deliveries, cryogenic liquid deliveries, construction services — all the myriad services and contractors needed to maintain the observatories supplied by local businesses, local jobs.

This wealth of economic activity supports the island community, supports island families and supports the local culture. The observatories offer an opportunity to stay here and raise a family where one grew up.

This is an opportunity gifted to the local community by the presence of Mauna Kea. On the mainland, many Native American tribes face similar problems and have turned to other profit-making ventures to attract money into their communities and provide employment to their members. Many of these ventures have serious drawbacks, both environmental or social. Finding business opportunities willing to invest in tribal ventures can be challenging.

Casinos illuminated in glittering lights have appeared across the country. While often profitable, they bring a host of other issues, both practical and moral. The observatories offer excellent job opportunities along with an effort that is completely in harmony with the values of Hawaiian culture.

Of course it is about more than the money. Along with economic support, the observatories bring a value that cannot be measured in dollars; they bring dreams. The domes atop Mauna Kea represent the finest aspirations of mankind, our best values, people from across the globe and from a dozen nations working together for a common goal. A demonstration to all who grow up on this island that dreams can be achieved. Many have chosen to pursue those dreams. While those paths may not always lead into astronomy, they are often inspired by the values and dreams that astronomy brings to Hawaii.

Our exploration of the universe is led by the great observatories atop Mauna Kea. It is a direct continuation of the efforts of the ancient navigators who explored a great ocean with skill and daring. This journey continues atop the mountain, where we are exploring our universe, a vast sea of stars and galaxies.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author

  • Andrew Cooper
    Andrew Cooper is an engineer who works on Mauna Kea.  He has watched, and occasionally participated in the entire Thirty Meter Telescope approval process from the first public hearings. You may often find him on the mauna, hiking, photographing, or spending a night under the stars alone with a small telescope.