TMT — A stargazer’s personal view

When I moved here, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) was the biggest telescope on the mountain. At a smaller NASA observatory, I watched my astronomer friends Bill Hartmann and Eleanor Helin as they observed planets and searched for asteroids (“Glo” Helin later named one of her discovered asteroids after me!). I myself observed supernova 1987A through a small telescope on another trip to the summit.

The Ellison Onizuka Space Center was new. That heroic astronaut’s story seemed to blend perfectly with the voyages of Hokule’a, created and originally sailed by, among others, my friends the UH anthropologist Ben Finney, and the revered artist Herb Kane. The synergy between all these starry visions was thrilling and inspiring to me as an artist.

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Herb and I later collaborated on a Portrait of the Pacific.

Gemini, Subaru, Keck, the observatories blossomed and the results were stunning. I worked with many of the observatories in helping to convey their findings to the public through my art. I made friends with the wonderful, dedicated people working there, many of who viewed the exposure to Hawaii’s culture as one of the big perks of being here. In my coffee shack studio in Honaunau I painted canvases of the cosmos, including a mural of the Milky Way now at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

I designed the Galaxy Garden at Paleaku Gardens in Honaunau, the world’s first large-scale walk-through model of our Milky Way. For a while it was the only one, but now sister gardens are thriving in Delaware and in Pamplona, Spain. I have conducted public stargazing for Kona Village Resort and public schools, the Civil Air Patrol, and random people on the beach and have yet to meet a person not thrilled to look through my simple telescope.

Traditional Hawaiian astronomy was fascinating to me, and I helped design the exhibits at the Imiloa Astronomy Center, learning as much as I taught. In fact, I sent the first word of the Hawaiian language to Mars three different times (Hoku’ula, one of the many Hawaiian terms for Mars, as per Herb Kane) as part of the sundials aboard NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. There the sundials sit, awaiting future human readers on Mars, colonists who will learn the name of their planet in Hawaiian!

(As reported in WHT Jan. 5, 2004) Our County Council gave me a commendation for this.)

So I think I can fairly claim to understand the history and positions of both sides to this issue.

There have always been some disturbing aspects to the relationship between the astronomers and the community. For one thing, while there are excellent public programs in Hilo and Waimea, home of the observatories HQ, there has been very little in West Hawaii. No lecture series or go-to astronomers here. Both my children grew up and went from kindergarten through high school here (Konawaena and Kealakehe). Not once did an astronomer from the observatories come to their classroom. I had to do it. Not once did they have a field trip to the HQs or stargaze with a Maunakea astronomer. As far as my kids were concerned, the Maunakea telescopes might as well have been on the moon.

Then there was the fact that although the devotion to public education was often and loudly expressed, the fact is that the funding, resources and staff available to the fine observatory people doing their best was inadequate. If the astronomy is World Series, the outreach and education is Little League. Not their fault. They do the best they can and would do more if they could. As usual, its all about the money.

Two examples: First, we organized public viewings at Paleaku Gardens for the landing of NASA’s Curiosity on Mars in 2011) where we were linked to a worldwide NASA audience, and the Transit of Venus in 2012. Admission was free. Paleaku paid out funds for a big-screen TV and hookup, parking attendants, advertising, etc. We requested $500 each time from the Astronomy Education group, involving all the observatories, and were told both times no funds were available.

We did it anyway. Over 150 people attended each event. An opportunity for observatory outreach to West Hawaii missed.

Second, the Onizuka Space Center, a model of a small space science museum, founded and expertly directed by Nancy Tashima, was the only dedicated space science education facility in West Hawaii.

When it was forced to relocate at the airport a new building was provided, but funds had to be raised for exhibits and operating expenses. The Center was unable to do so, and that wonderful museum is no more. Surely the observatories could have ponied up enough money between them to keep it going, considering its symbolic as well as educational importance. TMT has been waving around the promise of future money, only highlighting how little the observatories have really contributed up to now. Promises of future benefits ring hollow to people who have seen few benefits from over 30 years of world-class astronomy.

So it comes as no great surprise to me that TMT has failed to win public support. I don’t see many pro-TMT signwavers on the highway. Or hear pro-TMT songs on the radio. Most Big Islander kids who see the rings of Saturn through my telescope say it is the first time they have looked through a telescope. That is scandalous on this island! Stargazing — organized and paid for by the observatories — should be, should always have been, everywhere. But until recently most astronomers position was that they were here for their research, not to enlighten the public.

So do I malama TMT? My answer has always been that I love it — providing the community wants it. I think it is very clear to anyone here how the community feels. Lt. Gov. Josh Green summed it up best. “No single project is worth tearing our community apart.” The astronomers say sincerely they want to listen. So listen. The community has spoken pretty definitively. This is tearing us apart for your science.

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TMT, please relocate to the Canary Islands. Such a gesture of aloha would help smooth the path for continued work at what is still and will remain for many years the best complex of telescopes in the world.

Jon Lomberg was Design Director for NASA’s legendary Voyager Golden Record and won an EMMY Award for his work as Chief Artist on Carl Sagan’s original COSMOS TV series. He has lived in Honaunau since 1987.