Astronomy, science and telescopes in Hawaii are something we should all be proud of.

It may come as a surprise, but the Aloha State is one of the best places in the world for astronomy. This is thanks in part to Hawaii’s clear air, lack of light pollution, and towering mountain peaks, but also because of its world class telescopes. Its competitors are few, but include the Atacama Observatories in Chile.

Mauna Kea, however, is the only astronomical site in the Northern Hemisphere of its kind. While other states take pride in NFL teams, music festivals or local foods, Hawaii has something unique to be proud of: one-of-a-kind scientific research. This research expands the collective knowledge of humanity and also follows a long Hawaiian tradition of stargazing and celestial navigation.

Astronomy (and science in general) not only inspires our minds and imaginations, but has a very real impact. A study in 2012 showed that astronomy in Hawaii had an estimated economic impact of $168 million here in Hawaii, including $8 million in state taxes and the creation of almost 1,400 jobs.

What would the Thirty Meter Telescope explore? This.

www.tmt.org

Science also gives people something positive to hope for and to think about. Recently, the first-ever picture of a black hole was released and this was accomplished with the help of telescopes on Mauna Kea. The black hole was subsequently named Powehi in the Hawaiian language. The observatories have led to other astronomical objects being named in the Hawaiian language, including Oumuamua, the only interstellar object to ever be detected passing through our solar system, and the Laniakea supercluster, the cosmic home of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Debate about the telescopes has been fierce, but even so, 77% of those polled by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last year said that they supported the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Mauna Kea, including 70% who identified as Native Hawaiians.

Regardless, debate is understandable and appreciated. Sometimes the majority is wrong and, as with any big public project, the public should be informed about it and allowed to have a say. To address this, public forums were conducted before the plan got the official go-ahead (but were poorly attended and sometimes actively boycotted).

Forums have continued today, including a spirited debate at University of Hawaii Manoa just months ago in which many students expressed their ideas. Important concerns were raised throughout this process and at the hearings, and have continued to be raised today. Below are the facts.

• A plan to protect the mountain: Foremost among the concerns is the worry that damage will be done to the mauna and the surrounding environment. An extensive environmental impact statement was prepared and the design of the TMT is intended to leave zero environmental waste on the mountain.

Studies conducted by the state also concluded that the new telescope would have limited impact upon biological, visual, cultural, archaeological and geological resources, including the island’s water. Extra-thick walls are planned to contain water used in and around the telescopes, and plans have been put in place to cleanly decommission the telescopes over time.

• Longterm jobs for Hawaii residents: A second concern is that these resources are not shared with local residents, especially our keiki: the young students and future explorers and scientists. To address this, the TMT Think Fund was put in place.

Since 2014, it has been making an annual contribution of $1 million per year to local students pursuing STEM endeavors. This includes funding that has gone to, for example, the Akamai Internship program, which allows (among other things) local undergraduates to work at these world class telescopes.

It’s also noteworthy that a recent report from Hawaii Business Magazine indicates that almost half of local families are struggling to get by. Astronomy in Hawaii provides long-term economic benefits and job opportunities to our keiki, with opportunities for them to build a career here and maintain their roots in the islands.

• No affect to religious practices: A third concern about the telescopes was the legal challenges. Had the state and the university followed the law when approving new telescopes? This question worked its way through the courts for years, with opponents and proponents bringing up many of the details discussed here.

The lengthy process came to an end last October when the TMT project was given the go-ahead by the Hawaii Supreme Court. The court’s ruling also noted that there were no significant sites of traditional cultural practices near the telescopes.

Other questions were raised at the hearings, including those that are hard to answer. Is astronomy counter to Hawaiian culture? Do the telescopes desecrate the mountains? The court made its decision, but the questions remain.

Hawaii has a truly unique and beautiful heritage, not just because of its natural landscapes, coral reefs and mountains, but because of the culture of the Hawaiian people.

There is no way to right the wrongs of the past: The Hawaiian language was banned and Hawaiian-language newspapers were closed. Untold wrongs were committed and generations grew up without fully understanding their own culture.

There is no easy solution for this, and no easy answer. Still, there are at least a few things we can say.

We know that long ago the ancient Polynesians gazed up at the stars at night and wondered about them, just like we do. We also know, based on his letters, that King Kalakaua supported the idea of observatories and astronomy in Hawaii.

Certainly, there is no way he could have known what the future would bring or about the environmental challenges our state and our people face, but perhaps he would be happy to see resources going to Hawaiian students who want to lead and find their own way of being explorers: explorers of the universe.

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 photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Authors