TMT debate

The authors’ names have been removed.

For Construction

Ever since 2009, astronomers have been preparing to build the world’s second-largest telescope upon one of the highest peaks on Earth: Mauna Kea. While its construction has sparked numerous protests, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) must be built. Its construction promises unprecedented advances in the field of astronomy that cannot be ignored. 

Once built, the TMT will be the largest visible-light telescope on Mauna Kea. Its giant 30-meter mirror will allow us to observe objects in space up to 13 billion light-years away and witness never-before-seen objects. According to the website of the TMT, the telescope will have 144 times the collecting area and 10 times the spatial resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. With these marginal improvements, we’d be able to detect new planets that possibly hold of signs of life, discover new star formations, record new galaxies, and obtain high-resolution photos of black holes. 

The TMT is also financially lucrative: the costs include a $300,000 annual lease rent, which will increase incrementally to $1 million when it is operational. 80% of the generated revenue will be given to the stewardship of Mauna Kea, and 20% to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Construction of the TMT has also contributed to the local economy by creating 300 local and specialized construction jobs. Once it is completed, the TMT will employ about 140 employees in high-paying engineering and tech jobs. 

There are now 13 telescopes on the mountaintop, but they have brought less of an economic boom than promised. In an effort to entice astronomers and investors interested in building telescopes, the University of Hawaii (UH) at Hilo charged only $1 per year for the site. This hasn’t changed even with more and more telescopes entering the site, so the TMT and the $1 million in rent it promises will be a welcome change for Hawaii’s economy. Hawaii is currently ranked as the worst state to do business by CNBC’S America’s Top States for Business, and the TMT offers an optimal solution to our financial slump. 

This is not to mention that a majority of Hawaiian citizens support the construction of the telescope. According to a poll conducted by the Star-Advertiser, there is significant support from Native Hawaiian citizens, with around 79% supporting the project in 2019. Leading University of Hawaii professor and astronomer Dr. Peter Coleman noted in 2015, “Hawaiians are just so tied to astronomy I cannot, in any stretch of the imagination, think that TMT is something that our ancestors wouldn’t just jump on and embrace.”  

Modernizing with new technology is not a new concept to Hawaii: King David Kalakaua, best known as “The Merrie Monarch,” heavily invested in technological advances in 1881 to provide advancements for the needs of his people. Kalakaua set out to ensure that Hawaii would have electricity before the rest of the entire world, making the kingdom special for its advanced scientific fields and the use of navigating with the stars. Hawaii has a long history of being at the forefront of technological advancement— let’s not let it end by stopping the TMT. 

Against Construction

At first glance, the protests surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) seem like another debate about Indigenous beliefs versus modern science. Astronomer Tom Kerr stated in 2011, “It seems to me that it’s an argument about returning to the stone age versus understanding our universe and it’ll be interesting to see who wins in the end.” However, the complexity of the TMT debate cannot and should not be ignored. Seeing the protests as a rejection of modern science as a whole is a decidedly myopic view of the issue and deters meaningful avenues on how to resolve the conflict. TMT protesters are not rejecting the advancement of science but instead see the telescope as a threat to a culture that has been continually degraded over centuries of history. The cultural destruction that the TMT’s construction entails outweigh the potential advancements in the field of astronomy. 

Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, and it is considered to be one of the most sacred places in Hawaiian mythology. In Hawaiian traditions of creation, the Earth Mother, Papahanaumoku, and the Sky Father, Wakea, created the Hawaiian Islands. Mauna Kea was considered to be kupuna (the firstborn) as the first creation of the gods. Mauna Kea is given profound reverence as a result, with the water of Lake Waiau used in ceremonies and healing by native healers and the site being used for numerous burials of loved ones. According to the 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the TMT Telescopes, there are 263 historic properties, including 141 ancient shrines within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, all of which hold great cultural significance. 

There have already been thirteen telescopes built at the summit since the creation of an access road in 1964, but the construction of the TMT has been controversial due to the scope of the project. At 18 stories tall and containing structures that span 1.44 acres, the TMT is significantly larger and therefore more disruptive than previous construction projects. 

A history of colonialism in the Hawaiian Islands has meant decades of destruction to culturally significant areas. Countless heiau (Hawaiian temples) have been destroyed over the years to make way for fields of sugar cane. The islands’ once-thriving fishponds are now heavily silted and polluted from jet skis, windsurfers, and sailboats. Also, the cultural degradation Hawaii has faced doesn’t always manifest physically: teaching the Hawaiian language and rich history is increasingly becoming an afterthought in our state education system. 

To say that the TMT protesters are opposed to science and technology would be false. The Native Hawaiian people have strong cultural ties to astronomy, with wayfinding being a primary part of their history. As protester Lanakila Mangauil told the Associated Press in 2017, opponents of the TMT are not opposed to the telescope itself, but the desecration it would cause to a site with spiritual significance. 

Allowing for the construction of the TMT will set a dangerous precedent for how we navigate Indigenous rights. We shouldn’t support the construction of a project that directly threatens a sacred space in Hawaiian culture. If the purpose of the TMT is for the advancement of human civilization, we should recognize that advancement comes in the form of acknowledging all cultures and their beliefs. 

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