With the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope approved, but halted, on Hawaiʻi’s Maunakea, Hawaiʻi has to choose between the sacred or the scientific—as do many here at Stanford.
Over a decade ago, a group of scientists from the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), CalTech, and the UC system began an effort to build what they called the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). Based on the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, the group sought to expand the ground-based astronomical arsenal of humankind by building what would then have been the largest telescope ever constructed. (That title now belongs to the 40-meter-diameter European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT, under construction in Chile.) The scientists soon created a nonprofit called the TMT Observatory Corporation to begin collecting the over $1 billion in funding for the project. Though some foreign groups and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation near us in Palo Alto chose to monetarily support the project, the US National Science Foundation declined to do so.Once the TMT Observatory Corporation secured the money, they moved on to choosing a site for their behemoth mirrors. The nonprofit [considered](http://sitedata.tmt.org/Available_data/sites.html) the northern deserts of Chile, Baja Mexico, and the mountain of Mauna a Wākea (usually shortened to [‘Maunakea’ or ‘Mauna Kea’](http://www2.ifa.hawaii.edu/newsletters/article.cfm?a=690&n=55)) on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi as potential sites for the telescope. In 2009, the corporation [announced](http://www.tmt.org/news-center/thirty-meter-telescope-selects-mauna-kea) the selection of Maunakea as the final site due to the environmental conditions of the mountain and its nearby existing telescopes, including the [Keck Observatory](http://www.keckobservatory.org/about/the_observatory). The company only broke ground on the site, however, [during this school year](http://www.tmt.org/about-tmt/history).
The finished TMT project would consist of a Ritchey-Chrétien telescope like those of the Hubble and Keck Telescopes, which both use two hyperbolic mirrors instead of lenses, as well as a special adaptive optics system designed to minimize the blurring effects of our planet’s atmosphere on the images gathered. Since producing the TMT’s main mirror (the eponymous thirty-meter-diameter mirror) as a single piece would prove nearly impossible, the designs for the TMT call for 492 hexagonal mirror segments—each with a diameter from corner to corner about as long as the average human is tall. This combination of factors gives the TMT the potential to become “the most powerful telescope in the history of the world.” Scientists associated with the project hope that the finished TMT would provide them with information to help further the study of astronomy, including the study of the origins of the universe, as well as physics—perhaps even giving insights into the nature of the dark matter that makes up the vast majority of the universe’s matter. Our very own Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) could become one of the many beneficiaries of such new knowledge, as would the students and faculty who work there.But the TMT would gives us that knowledge at an incredible cost. And many people in Hawaiʻi (as well as here at Stanford) see that cost—the continued destruction of sacred land—as far too high.
The native religion of Hawaiʻi venerates all of the peaks of the archipelago as sacred places—and Maunakea, as the tallest mountain in Hawai’i and highest in the world, most of all. The mountain’s full name of Mauna a Wākea translates into English as the “mountain of Wākea,” which pays homage to Wākea, the sky god who fathered the islands of Hawaiʻi, the kalo (or taro) plant crucial to the traditional Hawaiian diet, and the native people of Hawaiʻi themselves. Wākea’s efforts of creation with the earth mother Papahānaumoku (or Papa) and their daughter Hoʻohokukalani took place on Maunakea, and the snow goddess Poliʻahu specifically cares for the mountain. For many kanaka maoli (or Native Hawaiians), the gods still reside there.
The closest comparable analogue to Maunakea for a Western religious tradition would be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a sacred site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims the world over; a more complete comparison from the West, though, would be a combination of the Temple Mount, the Garden of Eden, and Mount Olympus into a single site. So even for those *kanaka maoli *who do not believe in the gods of their ancestors, and for some kama’āina (literally “children of the land,” meaning non-Native Hawaiians) as well, the mountain remains an important cultural and religious site worthy of protection because of the past.
Previous efforts to build telescopes on the mountain seem to have fit within that context of protection. According to KAHEA, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, Hawaiians initially consented to the use of the sacred mountain for astronomical purposes by a small group of astronomers on one telescope in 1968. These astronomers came from the University of Hawaii (UH), and their limited presence on Maunakea seemed to make sense as a merging of the new and the old for the betterment of Hawaiʻi and the people of the islands.
But that initial observatory on the slopes of Maunakea led to a slippery slope of telescope construction by UH, NASA, and other groups from both within the islands and from the mainland—and many without proper permission and oversight required for the mountain as both a culturally and environmentally sensitive area. By 1998,the Office of the Auditor for the State of Hawaiʻi released a scathing audit decrying the management of Maunakea by UH and the state’s own Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). So by the time the TMT Observatory Corporation began its operations on the mountain, many Hawaiians had had enough.
The beginnings of the TMT Observatory Corporation’s investigations into Maunakea’s feasibility as a site for the telescope met with some stiff resistance from Hawaiians like Kealoha Pisciotta, the leader of a Maunakea preservation group called Mauna Kea Anaina Hou that has successfully fought the expansion of telescope construction on the mountain for years. Now that the Hawaiian government, including Governor David Ige, has officially approved the construction of the TMT under the current plan, Pisciotta’s group and others against building the TMT in Hawai’i have protested the construction on Maunakea since October at the site itself. Protests outside of Hawaiʻi have joined in solidarity, including some here in the Bay Area led by Stanford Hawaiian professor and kumu hula Kau’i Peralto. Professor Peralto has also worked to raise awareness about the controversy here on campus, including at Stanford Hawaiʻi Club’s largest event, Lūʻau, which took place on April 18.
On the Big Island itself, protesters began to blockade the road leading up the mountain to the construction site on April 2, leading to the April 20 announcement of an indefinite cessation of construction on the mountain. Nonetheless, a cyberattack brought down TIO’s website a week later, perhaps to encourage the indefinite moratorium to turn into the complete abandonment of Maunakea as the TMT’s site.
Such a solution—moving the TMT to one of the alternative sites in Chile or Mexico—comes across as the obvious potential compromise. Given the historical legal success of Pisciotta, the ultimate completion of the telescope in Hawaiʻi does not seem entirely guaranteed. But while many in Hawaiʻi oppose the TMT’s construction on the sacred slopes of Maunakea, few, if any, oppose the TMT in principle. Most of those forming a human shield around the mountain, including the 31 people arrested at its base on April 2, would probably support the construction of the TMT, and its potential to benefit science, if the telescope were only built on a mountain without the significance of Mauna a Wākea.
The debate over the telescope’s construction thus does not focus on the conflict between religion and science in the same way that the debates over contraception, stem cell research, and evolution have on the mainland; it does not pit a faith weary of technologies and ideas that challenge the power of God against the unstoppable flow of scientific advancement. Instead, the controversy over the Thirty-Meter Telescope’s planned placement on Maunakea deals with how Hawaiian society—and, by extension, our society here in California, where idea for the TMT began—chooses to value the sacred and the scientific in relation to one another. Wākea created the Big Island, Galileo the first telescope. To which of the two does the mountain belong?