Mauna Kea, to be precise — several times. I’ve shot parts of three films there, all centered on the telescopes atop the highest mountain on the Big Island of Hawai’i. As you may have noticed, the mountain — and a new telescope — have been in the news lately:
Construction was set to begin this week on a giant telescope on the barren summit of Mauna Kea, a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, considered the best observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere.
That would be the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, a project that originated with the same team that built the twin ten meter Keck telescopes that were the largest optical telescopes in the world from 1993 to 2009. (They’ve since been pipped by the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), atop the Canary Islands.) Astronomers and designers from Caltech and the University of California system, later joined by other partners set out to build the TMT as one of the next generation of ‘scopes aiming to explore some of the fundamental questions of astronomy, many of which were raised by discoveries made by the current generation of ginormous light buckets. That would be stuff like deeper investigations of the large scale structure of the cosmos, maybe image of planet formation around distant stars, certainly black hole inquiry and much more.
The TMT project was launched with great confidence. The problems its leaders anticipated were technical: how to construct an light-gathering area and/or an optical pipeline that large that holds its shape, that doesn’t mind temperature shifts, that can be morphed on demand to adjust for turbulence in the air above it and so on, through a whole host of very tricking engineering issues.
But there was never any real doubt about the right place to put this instrument, or of the project’s access to the summit of Mauna Kea, which, after all, already played host to more than a dozen other observatories. (I know this, because I talked to those in charge of the project at the time of its inception, many of whom had appeared in one or another of my films.)
They were wrong. Last week, after years of delays, some negotiations, and, by now, mistrust and more on the Hawai’ian activist side, the state governor announced that the project had cleared its last hurdles and construction would begin. This week, protestors blocked the one access road to the summit and the observatories brought their people off the mountain. At first, law enforcement was on the scene, but there were no direct confrontations. That changed yesterday:
On Wednesday, that opposition had a new face: About 30 Hawaiian elders were arrested as they blocked a road leading to Mauna Kea’s summit to halt the construction, organizers said. They described an emotional but peaceful scene as the elders, who were sitting under tents on the road, were escorted by police officers to nearby white vans while dozens of other protesters chanted and cried. Some had to be carried.
“We have come to the point in time where enough is enough,” Leilani Kaapuni, one of the elders, said in a phone interview. She said she was arrested for obstruction of a government road but later returned to the blockade. “This mountain is sacred,” she said.
If I had to guess, I’d expect this to end in a loss for the protests. There’s a lot of momentum behind the TMT, and a ton of money involved — and there’s a huge investment in cash and intellectual possibilities in the existing observatories that would probably be lost if the new instrument didn’t make it to the mountain. Money and power talk, so I’d bet the Hawai’ian state authorities will muscle this through — and likely with the support of plenty of citizens of the state (though I’d bet many fewer among those Hawai’ians of original Hawai’ian descent).
Visible protest against the telescopes will be much more difficult if/when the TMT goes in, as the almost all the action of high altitude astronomy now takes place far from its mountain tops. The Mauna Kea observatories have the headquarters well away from the summit. Those astronomers doing science with the telescope, if they aren’t looking at a truly remote feed back to their offices back home, get no closer than the cattle town of Waimea, miles away and more than 10,000 feet in vertical distance away from anything a mere observer could break.
Those using the TMT wouldn’t see, that is, the kinds of protests going on now. And the question of who has power over sacred spaces of interest to the dominant culture will be answered again, in the same way it has been almost every time these conflicts come up.
I should say that I’m an astronomy lover. I find the science that the TMT could do to be fascinating and utterly beautiful. But man-o-man, have the leaders of that project botched this dispute for years. I do not know how you now get this project i any way that acknowledges and accommodates the claims of the disempowered first residents of the island. But I do know that failure will have consequences; human goods — which scientific discoveries certainly are — achieved by the destruction of other goods are tainted.
I’ll leave you with the text of an article I wrote for The Boston Globe on this same subject four years ago. Looking back, I can’t say I’m surprised that the astronomical community didn’t find a way to connect to its opposition. But I am saddened by that fact.
Images: Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, c. 1668
US Air Force file photo, Air Force 1 over Mt. Rushmore, 10 February 2001.