|The Sierra Club's Nelson Ho visits a shrine on Mauna Kea. (photo)
|Technicians clean mirrors on Keck II telescope (photo)
|Photos by KEN LOVE / For The Times
MAUNA KEA--When Ed Stevens drives the dusty track to this wind-swept
summit atop Hawaii's Big Island, he tries hard not to see the gleaming white
and silver telescope domes set starkly amid this dormant volcano's red rock.
He tries not to see where precious cinder cones--homes to
goddesses--were flattened and paved for the hulking Western machines. He
tries not to see a blindingly white radio antenna dish within a stone's
throw of an ancient rock shrine that resembles Stonehenge.
"I go up there and I don't see them. Because if I see them I get
angry," said Stevens, 70, who regularly drives two hours from his house in
Kona to worship at Mauna Kea. In the naturalistic religion of Hawaiians,
Mauna Kea--the White Mountain--is the highest temple in Polynesia, where,
amid the snow, Hawaiians placed shrines and practiced burial rituals so
secret that it is taboo to speak of them to outsiders.
But he can't ignore the newcomers completely. "You hear this humming,"
he said. "It's so intrusive when you are trying to commune with these
entities. These benefactors."
The mountain is equally sacred to astronomers: With its astonishingly
clean, clear and dark skies, it is the best place on the planet to view the
universe. This desolate peak holds the world's densest concentration of
telescopes: 13, including the world's two largest.
When the first telescopes rose from the mountain--one a year in 1968,
1969 and 1970--there was not a peep of dissent from Hawaiians. Thirty years
and nearly $1 billion worth of telescopes later, though, Hawaii is a very
A once fledgling Hawaiian movement has grown into a vocal political
power in the islands. There are calls for secession from the United States,
a return of native Hawaiian lands and, on Mauna Kea, a moratorium on
telescopes and even their removal.
Hostage to the dispute is a high-profile National Aeronautics and Space
Administration/Caltech project that is crucial to developing the world's
next generation of telescopes, a project that could be the first to image
distant planets that might harbor life. The $50-million project is already a
year behind schedule. If some Hawaiians have their way, it will not be built
The emotionally charged debate over modern and ancient uses of this
rocky pinnacle is much more, though, than a fight over a telescope or a
mountaintop. To many Hawaiians, nothing less than the future of their
homeland is at stake. And it is a perfect example of the often fumbling
progress of science in a multicultural world.
Once prized for the clean industry and jobs they brought to this
economically challenged island, astronomers are now lumped in with the
missionaries, whalers, plantation owners and golf-course developers who have
taken turns carving up this island.
One of the angriest is Kealoha Pisciotta, who, at 30, is as old as the
age of modern astronomy in Hawaii.
Pisciotta was one of the first Hawaiians to work at a telescope. She
spent long, frigid nights at the summit as a telescope technician, steering
the European/Canadian James Clerk Maxwell sub-millimeter telescope toward
distant clouds of dust and gas so that astronomers could study the newborn
stars cloaked within.
On the way to her high-tech job, Pisciotta would take part in an
age-old Hawaiian tradition. She would stop to worship on the flanks of the
mountain, bringing small offerings to her family stone, or aumakua.
But that stone has been desecrated. Once, it was taken to the town
dump. Once, it was carted off by a fellow telescope employee. And once it
was overturned, strewing Pisciotta's aunt's ashes on the ground. Now the
stone is missing for good, and Pisciotta, angry that astronomers did not do
more to protect her stone, has resigned her position at the telescope.
Today, Pisciotta is angry that astronomers pay Hawaii just $1 per year
to use land seized by Americans a century ago. She claims that, in their
race to build bigger and better telescopes, the scientists have trampled not
only on rare insects, native birds and the mountain's fragile geological
landscape, but also on centuries of religious and cultural tradition.
"It truly is not Hawaiians versus astronomy," said Pisciotta, who is
still proud of her work on the telescope but can barely contain her
exasperation at astronomers. "But they never once have said, 'We screwed up
and we're sorry.' They never once said, 'Thank you for letting us use your
sacred temple.' "
Hawaiians imbue many natural phenomena--volcanoes, rocks, the
ocean--with religious significance. Mauna Kea, at 13,769 feet, is so sacred
because it is the closest thing in Hawaii, indeed in all of Polynesia, to
the heavens. The towering volcano is considered the piko, or navel, of
Hawaii, from which all else arose.
The mountain holds more than 90 shrines and burial sites. None is at
the very top, which is considered too sacred even for shrines and certainly
for Western machines. A 1996 fire that killed three workers building the
Subaru telescope on the mountain was seen by some as a curse, an ominous
warning from the gods.
There is much gray area in this collision of unlikely forces. The
scientists' goals are lofty ones: to view the stars and answer some of the
most riveting questions of our time, questions about the origin of the
universe and the beginnings of time.
"These are not greedy guys trying to build a hotel," said Tom Peek, an
amateur astronomer, teacher and writer who resigned his job as a stargazing
guide on the mountain because he was distraught at how Hawaiian issues have
been treated by astronomers. "But their moral compasses become confused
because they are blinded by the excitement of discovery."
What astronomers want from Mauna Kea they can get nowhere else in the
Northern Hemisphere--pristine, transparent skies unsullied by pollution,
dust, water vapor and city light. The otherworldly summit sits high above
cloud layers and much of the Earth's distorting atmosphere. The smooth shape
of the volcanic cone and the stable temperatures of the Pacific Ocean mean
that air flows smoothly over the telescopes. And it is far easier to reach
than two other areas with good viewing: the Chilean Andes and the South
The mountain's crown jewel is the Keck telescope complex: twin
behemoths with 10-meter mirrors that are the world's largest gatherers of
light. The summit is managed by the University of Hawaii's Institute for
Astronomy. Keck is jointly run by NASA, Caltech and the University of
These monster "light buckets" trump the orbiting Hubble space telescope
for data-gathering capability. They have imaged some of the faintest, most
distant objects in the universe and unleashed a string of scientific hits.
Using Keck, a Caltech team proved that galaxies formed shortly after the Big
Bang, much earlier than expected.
Andrea Ghez, a leading UCLA astronomer, used the machine to pinpoint a
massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. One UC Berkeley team
defied odds and used Keck to detect barely perceptible planets around other
suns. Another Berkeley team measured supernovae racing away from our galaxy
and showed, to the astonishment of many, that the universe is still
It is a coveted machine and an expensive one. Viewing time costs $1 per
second, or $30,000 per night. And Keck is just beginning to flex its optics.
Keck's proud director, Fred Chaffee, describes the machine as "Mozart at age
7." The instrument is likely to help answer a host of what scientists call
"origins questions"--just how did our solar system form? And our galaxy? And
the universe? And, perhaps most pressing of all: Are we alone?
Proud of what they do, and convinced of its importance, many mainland
astronomers chafe at the way they have been represented by islanders.
"It annoys me to see astronomers portrayed as tyrants who come in to
exploit Mauna Kea. That's very unfair," said Richard Ellis, a cosmologist at
Caltech who uses the Keck to study the origin and evolution of galaxies. He
recently turned down the directorship of the Institute for Astronomy because
he believed that political issues, including the Mauna Kea dispute, were
compromising the ability to do first-rate science there.
"We're searching for truth and knowledge, the kinds of things that have
motivated countries for centuries. We don't need to apologize. We need to
explain what we do."
Yet the accusations cannot be completely denied.
"It comes as a shock, but there's an element of truth there, isn't
there?" said Robert A. McLaren, a Canadian who oversees astronomy on Mauna
Kea for the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy. "Just because you
have a noble purpose and you don't mean [to cause] any harm doesn't mean you
"The desire is there to do a much better job," he said. "What's not
negotiable is the desire to have a world-class observatory."
The imbroglio at the summit started with something very small: a few
pieces of construction trash blowing down from the telescopes. In 1994,
Sierra Club members noticed the debris and called Nelson Ho, a club leader,
"I'm an amateur astronomer myself," said Ho, a seasoned environmental
leader who approached astronomers as colleagues. But the Mauna Kea
astronomers, he said, brushed off his complaints. The trash was not cleaned
up until 1995, after Ho enticed a local newspaper to write a front-page
By then, Ho was looking into the telescopes in detail and criticizing
astronomers for taking shortcuts, ignoring environmental laws and sneaking
projects in with little or no public review.
In 1996, an entomologist discovered that construction at two telescopes
had destroyed critical habitats for the Weiku bug, a quarter-inch creature
found only atop Mauna Kea, feasting on wind-borne insects and protected from
freezing by a strange biological antifreeze.
Others were angry that the telescope builders had placed their machines
too close to pu'u, or cinder cones with religious significance, even
flattening some of them.
And there was an outcry over how astronomers tallied telescopes.
Astronomers said that arrays of telescopes, even those with two dozen
components, should count as one telescope because such an array is a single
scientific instrument. Hawaiians argued that, from a land-use perspective,
each machine should be counted separately and to do otherwise is to play a
"We can count," Pisciotta said.
In 1998, the state published a scathing audit on summit management that
backed many of the Hawaiians' claims, but that is still hotly contested by
the university's McLaren. It accused the University of Hawaii of neglecting
historical, cultural and natural resources on the mountain and focusing
primarily on building telescopes and boosting its own research program.
In response, the university hired consultants to create a new master
plan to govern the mountain. They asked for public input at open hearings.
It was like uncorking a bottle of anger, frustration and tears.
"It is inconceivable to me, people on this committee could even
consider asking for anything more, except forgiveness," a stern Pisciotta
said in May 1999 as she joined a long line of those who came to speak.
It took more than a year of discussion and committee meetings to draft
the master plan. The effort involved one of Hawaii's most powerful figures,
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye; the university's board of regents; and a panel of
Hawaiian elders led by Stevens.
On June 16, the regents approved the plan. It allows astronomers three
new telescopes, not five. A new management board that includes Hawaiian
representation will oversee stewardship of the mountain. Oversight will be
based not on the neighboring island of Oahu, but in the nearby city of Hilo,
soothing notorious inter-island politics that have further mired the debate.
But many Hawaiians remain deeply unsatisfied. A good deal of the
wording is vague. And much remains to be negotiated, including each new
construction proposal, including the Caltech/JPL project now in limbo.
Anger flared anew late last year when UC Santa Barbara publicized plans
to build a 30-meter telescope, the California Extremely Large Telescope, and
place it, perhaps, atop Mauna Kea.
That was proof, Hawaiians said, that astronomers would arrogantly move
forward despite local concerns. Astronomers on Mauna Kea, and many at
Caltech familiar with the controversy, cringed at UC Santa Barbara's
announcement, calling it premature and badly timed.
Astronomers are still reeling from the hostility that has been directed
at them, anger that still echoes in letters to local newspapers. For three
decades, astronomers had been golden children on the island, featured in one
governor's campaign literature as the future of a modern Hawaii and touted
for bringing about $142 million into state coffers each year.
"This is not to minimize or try to downplay the feelings we've heard
recently," McLaren said in a recent interview. "All I'm saying is, it was so
different from what we'd experienced in the past."
In 1970, when Kealoha Pisciotta was born and the mountain bore just
three small telescopes, Hawaiians weren't allowed to speak their own
language in schools. And their voices, even when it came to protecting their
precious Mauna Kea, were muted.
"Native Hawaiian self-esteem was so low, they didn't know how to argue.
They didn't know how to object," said Nainoa Thompson, 47, a modern
Polynesian navigator who has re-created the long-distance ocean voyaging
techniques of his ancestors, navigating by the stars among Hawaii, Tahiti
and Easter Island.
Through these journeys, Thompson has become a potent symbol of the
resurging pride in Hawaiian culture. But he still cringes when he recalls
that his grandmother was beaten for speaking her native Hawaiian language in
Pualani Kanahele, the daughter of a revered cultural leader on the Big
Island, cringes too, and weeps openly when discussing the mountain. She
won't even look up at Mauna Kea now, because she did nothing to stop the
telescopes, which she, like many here, call pimples. "I have to stand up to
my grandkids," the anguished Kanahele said at one hearing, "and say, 'I
never did anything.' "
Telescopes may seem an unlikely bonding agent for a budding indigenous
political movement. But the fight against development on the mountain is
bringing together Hawaiians of all types, not only cultural practitioners,
activists and environmentalists, but also grandmothers, students, engineers
and even retirees who pledge to throw their bodies in front of construction
"If you're going to push on this," warned Mililani Trask, an outspoken
lawyer and community activist who recently served as president of Ka Lahui
Hawai'i, a Hawaiian nation proposed by pro-sovereignty groups, "we're going
to push you back."
The Hawaiian independence movement has gained much momentum since 1993,
when Congress and President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the illegal
overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy 100 years before. A year later, the Navy
returned a small island, Kahoolawe, that it had long used as a bombing
range. And Hawaiians are still fighting to regain control of 1.8 million
acres of ceded lands that once belonged to Hawaii's queen.
The Mauna Kea Astronomy Precinct sits squarely on those ceded lands.
The battle over telescopes has become a chance to reclaim, symbolically
and practically, ground that their people lost long ago.
"Mauna Kea is the center of our spirituality," said Thompson, who also
sits on the University of Hawaii's board of regents. "For it to be the place
we debate this issue is not by chance."
Chaffee, the director of the Keck, agrees. "This isn't about
astronomy," he said. "We're just the most visible thing. We're a lightning
rod for years and years of distrust."
Links to Astronomy
The challenges of conducting science in a multicultural world vex
scientists who are used to getting their way.
In Arizona in the late 1980s and early '90s, astronomers circumvented
environmental and cultural preservation laws by winning a congressional
exemption to build telescopes on Mt. Graham, a mountain considered sacred by
Last year, in a very different outcome for science, then-Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt ordered the bones of the 9,300-year-old Kennewick
Man returned to five American Indian tribes--to the emotional wails of
scientists who called the decision a death blow to anthropology.
In Hawaii, as in all melting pots, there are unexpected synergies.
Hawaiians have a strong link with astronomy: The first Hawaiians, the
skilled Polynesian voyagers, navigated by the stars. Today, Hawaiian elders
speak easily of galactic nebulae and supernovae. Astronomers, likewise, can
relate oral Hawaiian legends set on the mountain. Telescope director Chaffee
takes lessons in the Hawaiian language.
Still, an almost unfathomably deep culture clash remains. The very
traits that make for a successful scientist today--a dispassionate, detached
view of the world and an extremely narrow focus on a single question--are
characteristics that many Hawaiians mistrust.
"You can't have a one-track mind; all you want to do is look up in the
sky at those things and not care about anything else," said Larry Kimura, an
assistant professor in the budding Hawaiian language program at the
University of Hawaii at Hilo who helped head the committee that drafted the
master plan. "You don't just start plopping things all over the place--your
million-dollar machines--without thinking of giving anything back."
Many Hawaiians say the astronomers have been especially callous in
naming the machines. A large telescope now on the drawing board has been
dubbed "GOD," for giant optical device. Auxiliary telescopes planned for the
Keck telescope are called "outriggers"--a nod to boats used by Hawaii's
legendary sea voyagers that native Hawaiians see as condescending.
Kimura's cultural connection to the mountain is a personal one: His
family is one of many that participate in the ritual of depositing the
umbilical cords of their children in the sacred waters of Mauna Kea's Lake
Waiau--a way to connect the newly born to their spiritual home.
"We are not just people of yesterday," said Kimura from an office where
fragrant ginger flowers sit atop a turquoise computer. "We are also people
Hawaiians are not the only ones frustrated by cultural differences.
McLaren is among astronomers who feel blindsided by Hawaiian complaints that
did not surface when the telescopes were being planned. (Objections raised
initially in the 1970s and '80s centered on environmental issues and access
to the mountain for hunters and hikers.)
"With our Western ways, we speak up. That's not necessarily the
Hawaiian way," McLaren said.
But he does admit that the astronomers who planned the mountain should
plead guilty to cultural ignorance.
"They didn't put those [telescopes] up there because science is more
important than Hawaiian culture," he said. "They put those things up there
because they didn't think of Hawaiian culture at all."
For astronomers, passage of the master plan was a victory, but a humble
one. Said Keck Director Chaffee, "It's what we've been working on for three
years--to get to the starting line."
Though he is hovering behind the starting line, it is obvious Chaffee
wants to sprint.
When the controversy over the mountain broke, Chaffee was in the middle
of a major effort to beef up the powerful Keck. The project is the
$50-million Keck Interferometer. It aims to ring the two massive Keck
telescopes with four to six smaller "outrigger" telescopes and then to pool
the light from all of those instruments. Astronomers are almost giddy at the
prospect; it would mean the combined telescopes could image distant objects
about 10 times more sharply than they can today and could start making maps
of nearby stars and their planets.
The Caltech/JPL interferometer project is a linchpin of the NASA
Origins project, an energetic push to find other planets that might harbor
The technology is tricky. Precisely merging a number of speeding light
beams has been a major challenge for JPL engineers. Last week, they linked
the light from the two large telescopes for the first time.
Proof that linking a number of telescopes together can work on the
ground is the first step in developing a new generation of space
interferometers that could detect Earth-sized planets and eventually build a
"Terrestrial Planet Finder" that could image those planets in a search for
A permit to build the new telescopes--which must be granted by Hawaii's
Department of Land and Natural Resources--will be the first test of the
fragile agreement on the mountain.
As NASA gets closer to asking for its permit, opposition gets louder.
The Sierra Club, which has praised NASA for conducting recent
environmental reviews on Mauna Kea, nevertheless wants a full environmental
impact statement, a process that could take months. Last month, the Office
of Hawaiian Affairs dismissed NASA's plans to mitigate damage to the summit
as "vague and ambiguous at best."
"While NASA searches for other life forms in space," deputy
administrator Colin Kippen Jr. wrote to NASA officials, "it is ironic that
its search may extinguish an entire species of the Weiku bug here on Earth."
Ahahui Ku Mauna, the panel of elders led by Ed Stevens that has been
negotiating with astronomers, announced last month that it would not support
the Keck project until it receives assurances that astronomers would give
something back to Hawaiians. Council members are seeking long-term funding
of programs that could help the native Hawaiian community.
For now, no one can predict which way the decision will go.
With so much at stake, Chaffee, and even the top NASA administrator in
charge of the project, Rick Howard, are both willing to go slowly.
"We're trying hard to listen to concerns," said Howard, a senior
executive at NASA's Washington headquarters who formerly managed the Caltech
Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea. "No one had been listening to them
for 100 years."
Astronomers also have started sharing their science--making school
presentations and hiring Hawaiian students, in hopes that they will spur a
new generation of Hawaiian-born astronomers. An $11-million astronomy
facility in Hilo, dedicated Feb. 23, will help foster a new degree program
in astronomy offered at the university's Hilo campus.
The Mauna Kea Visitor Center now offers cultural programs for the
hordes who ascend in the evening to gaze at the stars through small
telescopes put out for the public.
But the astronomers' main focus--and their fear--remains pinned on the
mountaintop. The Keck outriggers have become hugely symbolic.
To Chaffee, they are a chance to move ahead, painstakingly, and get the
process right by "meeting both the spirit and the letter of the law." The
tiny telescopes have already generated more paperwork than their massive
brothers, Kecks I and II.
Astronomers don't want to squander their claim, or their right to be on
a mountain they find so precious. "I've got to look, not just at Keck, but
at the future of astronomy in this part of the world," Chaffee said.
To Hawaiians, the outriggers could open the door to a slew of new
interferometry projects, and to telescopes multiplying like rabbits across
their sacred landscape.
"We were asleep too long," Stevens said. "We won't go to sleep again."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times