Thirty Meter Telescope could boost Hawaii Island’s economy

The Thirty Meter Telescope, the world’s most advanced eye on the stars, should revive Hawaii Island’s construction industry and provide a high-tech boost to the local economy

September, 2013

A $1.4 billion construction project would be a big deal anywhere in the world, but for struggling Hilo and Hawaii Island’s moribund construction industry, it’s a gift from above – figuratively and literally.

“It’s a huge project for us,” says Dean Au, field representative of the carpenters union, referring to the planned Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea. “Hilo is the poorest town in Hawaii. Our economy is in dire need of an uplift.”

TMT business manager David Goodman says 20 percent to 30 percent of the $1.4 billion will be spent in Hawaii, with most of that on Hawaii Island. In round numbers, that means about $300 million to $400 million spent in the state from groundbreaking in April 2014 to completion in 2022. That includes an estimated 300 temporary construction jobs on Hawaii Island, which has yet to fully recover from the financial crash of 2008.

Many of those jobs will go to carpenters and drywallers belonging to Au’s union, the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters. The carpenters were the lead union negotiators in July 2009 when a memorandum of understanding was signed with the nonprofit TMT’s board of directors. Subsequently, 15 other unions signed on to the agreement that guarantees “area-standard wages,” which means prevailing union wages for construction crews.

After it is completed, TMT will provide an estimated 120 to 140 permanent jobs in Hilo and on Mauna Kea, according to organizers. Additional work, such as computer and network support and machine shop projects, will be contracted locally. For instance, in August, a Hawaii firm was hired to conduct geotechnical tests at the site at a cost of $600,000.

The Thirty Meter Telescope will be the largest and most powerful telescope in the world when it comes online on Mauna Kea in 2022. Planned, designed and financed by an international consortium led by the nonprofit TMT Observatory Corp. of Pasadena, Calif., its partners are the California Institute of Technology, University of California, Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Chinese Academy of Sciences and India’s Department of Science and Technology. The University of Hawaii is not a TMT partner, but it traditionally receives observing time at observatories on Mauna Kea, which sublease land from UH.

Local Impact

During construction, materials, labor, administrative and support activities will ramp up in Hilo and elsewhere on the Island. A shipping and storage facility must be established to stage materials and equipment brought from the U.S. mainland and overseas. Much of the pre-assembly will be done at sea level to avoid the constraints of working at the 13,000-foot altitude of the final telescope. The consortium says a resident team of managers and technicians, including local hires, will conduct ongoing assembly, integration, and verification and testing at this sea-level site.

“This is a tremendous opportunity, not only for the Big Island, but the rest of the state as well,” says Dwight Takamine, director of the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “Our department is committed to maximizing the opportunities this project represents, economic and otherwise. We want to make sure that local workers, their families and the business community all benefit from it.”

The cutting-edge observatory will be located atop the dormant volcano, above 13,000 feet and above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. It will join a cluster of 11 existing observatories built there since 1966. Back in 1967, the Mauna Kea Conservation District was established, delineating an 11,288-acre domain for scientific uses, essentially the entire summit from the 11,000-foot level on up. It is now called the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. The University of Hawaii leased the land from the Hawaiian Board of Land and Natural Resources at a price of $1 per year. Five of those acres have been sub-leased from UH by TMT. The annual rent is yet to be negotiated but must be “substantial,” according to Act 132, passed by the state Legislature in 2009. The state will no longer authorize dollar-a-year deals.

Astronomer Gordon Squires, TMT communications and outreach lead, says TMT will be three times larger than the most powerful optical telescopes on Earth today. Its segmented, 492-mirror lens will reveal the universe with up to 80 times more image sharpness of the largest existing ground-based telescopes. Utilizing advanced infrared and optical technology, it will allow astronomers to explore the origins of galaxies, study the birth and death of stars, and probe the cosmic mysteries of super-massive black holes.


Historically, the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea have held a significant place in Hawaiian culture. According to ancient custom, only chiefs and priests were allowed to climb above the tree line. Archaeologists have identified 93 culturally significant sites on Mauna Kea’s cold, desolate summit: shrines, adze workshops and graves.

Local objections to the TMT were presented and considered at some 20 public hearings and meetings during the nearly five-year application process. Consequently, a 126-page conservation district use permit was issued in 2012, followed by approval of that permit by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources in April 2013.

Though groundbreaking is scheduled for April 2014, organized opposition continues.  In May, an appeal to the land use permit was filed in Hawaii’s Sixth Circuit Court by a coalition of private citizens and cultural groups. The nine-point appeal is based on cultural, environmental and administrative issues the petitioners claim have not yet been satisfactorily addressed.

“If we say ‘Yes’ to more development, we are saying yes to the desecration of our temple and our ancestors, yes to the destruction of our waters and yes to the possible extinction of life itself,” opposition leader Kealoha Pisciotta told the Big Island Weekly in June 2013.

The author of that cover story, Jamie Winpenny, continued, “Despite its severe, arid environment, Mauna Kea’s summit is a rich ecological system. It is home to numerous, uniquely adapted native plants and creatures that include moths, caterpillars, spiders, and the tiny, predatory wekiu insect, which can survive temperatures far below freezing. The habitats in which these species thrive are fragile and delicate in the extreme. A single human footfall can cause irreparable harm. The construction of the TMT will irrefutably accelerate the loss of species and habitats that are even now on the brink of extinction.”

Community Outreach

On his first visit to Hawaii Island in 2005, as plans for the new observatory took shape, Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara and board chairman of TMT Observatory Corp., was told that many Islanders resented the 11 observatories already perched atop Mauna Kea. Opponents of the telescopes atop Mauna Kea said that, though the observatories participate in education and outreach, they are not fully engaged with or supportive of the local community, rarely hire local staff for high-tech jobs and do not share funding or their stellar discoveries.

The TMT response was to create a better “good-neighbor” policy and become a more active member of the community. One avenue it chose was education, specifically in the fields of science, math, engineering and astronomy.

That was five years ago. Today, thanks to the efforts of its community affairs manager, Sandra Dawson, TMT’s presence is strongly felt throughout the Island’s elementary, middle and high schools. She and TMT have helped start or support 13 school programs and pulled in participation from TMT’s partners on the mainland and from around the world.


One teacher who welcomes TMT’s support is Dale Olive, a science teacher at Waiakea High School in Hilo. Olive and many other science educators have discovered that designing, building and programming robots can inspire students, even those who previously had zero interest in science. A few years ago, Olive had discovered some small, programmable robots that were perfect for classroom use, but he needed funding to introduce them to his curriculum. Dawson agreed to provide the money. In fact, TMT has sponsored 28 classroom robotics programs around Hawaii Island and helped many more local kids compete in the state tournaments on Oahu, as well as mainland and foreign tournaments.

Olive’s student robotics teams excel in local, statewide, national and international tournaments, and he has taken his techniques to other islands, holding classes for science teachers and parents to spread the word about robotics and how it helps learning in the classroom.  “I have to give credit to Sandra,” he says. “Without her financial assistance this program may never have gotten off the ground.”

TMT’s support for science and robotics education has come in many forms, Dawson says. “We funded a two-week class for high school students in conjunction with Hawaii Community College, where new curricula was developed and used. We also contributed funds for teachers to do additional oversight of a high-school mentoring program, along with funding and participation in the Akamai Workforce Initiative, where students spend a week in classes with new science curricula. Both programs include career guidance. We also sponsored three workshops for teachers where new curricula was provided, but do not know yet if this curricula has been implemented.”

In July, TMT sponsored and hosted the inaugural Pacific Astronomy and Engineering Summit in Hilo with students from high schools in Canada, China, India, Japan and on Hawaii Island. “It was a huge success,” Dawson says, “and initiated TMT’s international education/workforce pipeline program. The students learned about each other’s culture, joined in engineering and science workshops, and began what we hope are lifelong friendships and networks.”

The education funding will be formalized in 2014 when observatory construction begins. The TMT board has committed $1 million per year to a new fund called THINK for The Hawaii Island New Knowledge. The grant will be split between the Hawaii Community Foundationand the Ke Alii Pauahi Foundation. A local committee, now being selected, will determine distribution of the money through scholarships and educational grants. “Our THINK fund will not only provide scholarships, but will work to keep students in college,” Dawson says. “We are very optimistic that we can make a difference.”

Takamine, the state labor director, says the THINK fund “will provide some real focus on math and science education for those kids who dream about becoming scientists and astronomers.”

Inspired by robotics and sometimes by TMT itself, many young people on Hawaii Island are planning on careers in science. In fact, Dean Au of the carpenters union points to his son Jacob, an eighth grader at St. Joseph’s School in Hilo. After learning how to program robots and competing in a VEX robotics tournament sponsored by TMT, Jacob has decided to become an engineer.

Will the enthusiasm of Jacob and other students for science last? Dawson points to a study of the Akamai Workforce Initiative: “Here is the best data we have: Five years after completing the program, over 80 percent of the participants are still in STEM college education or career tracks. The national average after five years is less than 30 percent. TMT is only one supporter of this program, but we are excited about its success and will continue to support it.”

Mauna Kea: What’s It Worth to Local economy

There are 12 telescope facilities in full operation on Mauna Kea, including the two Keck facilities. The University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy provided this look at their economic impact.

Facility Capital Cost ($ million)* Operating cost a year ($ million) Hawaii Island-based staff First year of operation
UH 2.2-meter Telescope $5 $1.5 7 1970
Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope $30 $7.0 45 1979
NASA Infrared Telescope Facility $10 $4.3 19 1979
United Kingdom Infrared Telescope $5 $2.0 12 1979
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope $32 $5.0 27 1986
Caltech Submillimeter Observatory $10 $2.6 11 1986
VLBA Antenna $7 $0.3 2 1992
W.M. Keck Observatory (Keck I & II) $170 $13.0 130 1992/1996
Subaru Telescope $170 $19.5 96 1999
Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope $92 $13.9 112 1999
Submillimeter Array $80 $5.0 27 2003
Additional Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services Not applicable $1.2 39 1980
Total $611 $75.3 527

* Original cost, not adjusted for inflation and not including subsequent capital improvements.

Want an Observatory Job?

Jim Kennedy, the former head of the Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope on Mauna Kea and a member of the Hawaii County Workforce Investment Board, collected these facts for a report on the Mauna Kea observatories. Though the report was prepared in 2010, Kennedy assured Hawaii Business that the projections are still accurate. Here are some of his findings:

More than 80% of the jobs in a typical observatory are not in research fields

Most jobs only require two or four years of college education.

“Observatories prefer local hires whenever possible, but there aren’t enough qualified local applicants.”

– Jim Kennedy, former head of the Gemini Telescope

2007 survey of Hawaii Island observatories’ technical and administrative staff

born and raised on Hawaii Island
living in the state when hired
hired from overseas locations
not born on Hawaii Island


Technology education offers the most employment opportunities

Mechanical & Electronics Jobs
About evenly split between two-year community college and four-year university training programs.
Software Jobs
Usually require four-year university degree
about 20 jobs each
about 57 jobs each
about 16 jobs each
about 47 jobs each


Correction Sept. 16, 2013: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a story to the Big Island Chronicle. The story appeared in the Big Island Weekly.

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John Stickler


  1. When science gains by oppressing the Sacred, then Science becomes The predator of moral balance.. it is critical that our collective lesson teaches aloha pono: respect my boundary, as i respect yours. We have an obligation to build science on dignity, respect of each other first. that being the standard, please, please see what is sacred to us is not sacred to this project. Kapu Aloha , Do not take what is not yours Sacred. Science, and industry, and government is feeling the violation of disrespecting. I am sorry that is happening to you. Please forgive me should you understand it might be a failure of mine. Thank you for respecting me . WE lOVE YOU, NOW, BEFORE AND AFTER THIS CONFLICT!. We see you bigger than your moral immaturity, And I See We Hawaiians Challenge to meet the intellectual and moral imbalance prevailing. Were all going to the mountain, just from the No Risk Side. Aloha pono!. love prevails all trauma . Peace first, not after you take.

    1. You speak of this project as if it is an act of war. You claim the entire mountain as a sacred site. How can one claim ownership under one ideal yet deny it over another?

      This project is of tremendous value to ALL people the world over.

      Do you really think that the first Hawaiians, who used the stars to navigate by, would not want to have a tool like this to gaze even deeper into the very skies they cherished every bit as much as the land?

      Considerable efforts were made over a seven year period to accommodate a range of stipulations made by those interested in being as respectful of the area as possible. Those behind the TMT have continued to demonstrate sensitivity by halting and hearing, yet again, more concerns.

      No culture can move ahead by clinging to the past. Remembering is healthy but so is letting go. You can do both.

      1. Albee, Patience. . Your choice is not more important than we protectors. Period. Please respect what you see. American Citizens Rising a Nation for Generations of the very demand you Have Albee…. Me first. anyone who has stood before the will of the Hawaiians is doing the us the disrespect thing. Stop. Consider. the Respect that has been extended to you needs to be returned. Presume your Right. Still.. be right your own land. I am A happy American Citizen. We all will be happy when we grow up and deliver what we claim for ourselves.. Freedom. I know you have much to gain when you will support our choice to be Hawaiian Citizens. Consider you being Equal to me. and NOT more important. have and awesome expansion of truth!. We Love you!.

        1. Harry, I grew up on Oahu. I was raised by Hawaiian aunties and uncles. I have blood kin of Hawaiian descent, all of whom had most of their lands taken away by foreigners. I am not at all insensitive to these issues.

          But this telescope is not a desecration. If anything, it is a logical extension of the genius that the earliest Hawaiians possessed in the fields of astronomy and astral navigation. I have every confidence that if those first forebears could have had the opportunity to use this incredible tool to gaze even deeper into the heavens they would have jumped at the chance.

          The majority of Hawaii’s scientifically literate community is in support of this project.

          Several years were dedicated to ensure that the least amount of harm would be done in the construction. No ancient structures or burial grounds are going to be disrupted by the TMT.

          Hawaiians must embrace the future and learn to move forward with the rest of the species. The Hawaiian people can contribute mightily to the process and they should as it would aid them in taking their rightful place in the advancement of all mankind.

          None of this means that Hawaiians should forget their rich history, quite the opposite. But any society that clings too tightly to its past will be devoured by it.

          All of nature refuses to exist in stasis. Any part of nature, especially peoples, who refuse to adapt invariably perish. It is a paradox, but all of nature is a paradox.

          1. The project is Hawaiian is name only. I am sure a bunch of Californians from the UCs will be imported onto the telescope to take the high paid research jobs. I get your point about the scientific gains, no doubt.

            To advertise the project like a mega industrial project is not genuine. Also, only today I learned, robotics classes by top corporations and colleges sponsorship, immediately turns the students into engineering aspirants in an economy where there is no outlet. Should the student in Hilo become an engineer and camp out in front of the TMT to eventually get a job?

            This type of screening in education and pushing a career path at a young age is annoying to see.

          2. Exactly what is a “Californian?” You know that whites are not the majority in CA anymore, right?

            And maybe pushing a career path at young ages is unsettling but f-ing off for years trying to “find yourself” while the population continues to balloon and jobs get increasingly competitive and scarce isn’t exactly going to do those kids any favors when push comes to shove.

          3. As an Indian guy living in California, I agree the state is a mix of people and I was just making a point that there will be a lot of external employment.

            The project is extremely futuristic but why did not consider any runner ups? Something tells me the locals are getting screwed. The mountain should be left alone for it’s geologic and geographic importance.

          4. Locals are involved in construction and other facets. And Paul Coleman, a Hawaiian born-raised astrophysicist with Hawaiian ancestral lineage is also on board. Note that you are purely speculating and not producing hard evidence. Sure, there will likely be more people from outside Hawaii but that has nothing to do with prejudices. Maybe more Hawaiians need to step up their game in K-12. I went to school in Hawaii from K-9th and I know well enough that a lot of Hawaiians don’t take their academics seriously at all. Sure, a few do (and Kam Schools have excellent programs that reward Hawaiians for excellence) but most seem to prefer sitting in the back of the class where they crack jokes, dip, take “bathroom” breaks (coming back glassy-eyed), and put in earbuds to crank out to Jawaiian and block out lessons.

          5. Thank you. I will look him up. I have never been to Hawaii the more I read the more I wanna visit and live there. But, California makes you kinda complacent in moving.

          6. A move there would cost a small fortune. The job market is brutal, even for those with advanced degrees. It’s a vry small market with an abundance of competition.

            Go for a staycation.

            There’s a lot more opportunity in CA, which is why I keep coming back.

    2. You do not speak for all of Hawaii; I was born and raised on the Big Island and I welcome with open arms this marvel of human ingenuity. What better location for a device that will allow us to see into the furthest reaches of the heavens, to almost the moment of creation, than what is considered to be the most sacred site of our people?

  2. It is unfortunate that such an obviously biased article can be so disingenuous to the very people it is to serve. “The Voice of the people is the voice of God” Queen Liliuokalani….Whether we agree or disagree on the pros and cons of the development, the commonality we all have is the human condition. When asked by Kumu Kaleikoa Kae’o of Maui, “What is the human benefit, as a Hawaiian, I have Aloha for all mankind, I really want to know, WHAT IS THE REASONING FOR THIS RESEARCH? WHAT BENEFIT IS IT TO HUMANITY?” And the answer was? “Pure, Selfish, Research”….From the National Science Foundation giving a presentation to a school on Maui 8 years ago. To classify the Native Hawaiian people as a “horde of Lying, threatening Native Hawaiians” as a recently shared “unedited” email from a highly respected University and Staff member of the Science and Astronomy community, in a heavily populated polynesian community, is indeed a mere glimpse of the treatment that the Native Hawaiian community has received since the Illegal Overthrow of 1893. I grew up in both worlds, I learned to be a good American citizen and was always proud to be a part of a country that honored and respected their American citizens, always working for the good of the people. However, as I grew older and learned more of my history, I found that there indeed are many half truths, treasonous acts on behalf of American citizens in the name of profit, (NOT for the safety of American Citizens as stated) and violations of not only Hawaiian Kingdom Law, (which was the law of the land at the time, currently active treaties with more than 30 countries around the world) but International Law, and more importantly US law. There are more telescopes being built in Chile and launched in satellite, circling the earth. Many in the science and astronomy idustry, know that launching a telescope to circumnavigate the earth is much more costly, yet less damaging to Sacred and Cultural sites. It’s OK for the Native Hawaiian community to say, “Enough is Enough, 13 tries is plenty”…… I honor the American citizens for their love of their country, rights and freedoms it affords all it’s citizens, I would never want to deny ones own right to “Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Justice”, and I certainly don’t want anyone to dismiss, belittle, criticize, or question my love, my loyalty for my own country, Ko Hawaii Pae ‘Aina…If you as an American citizen found these serious flaws, would you lay down and business as usual? Or would you Stand up for your country? Would you do all you could to restore a Nation that was once so loved, honored and respected by not only Countries around the world, but by the very people it served? A Nation that was so sustainable, that was modern, forward thinking, and innovative in not only domestic diplomacy but International relations as well, that has suffered and been depleted because of “Pure Selfish Research”…. This is a time where we are seeing the rise of a Nation that has been lulled under the mindset of Occupation, it has made our people willing participants in their own demise. Now that the disillusion is fading from the vision of our Lahui, our people, we are being classified as “hostile, ignorant of facts, backwards thinking, selfish to not think of ALL the job opportunities”…. NO, we cannot allow our culture and our identity to be “quieted or stifled, controlled or intimidated” any longer. We are the generation that our kupuna spoke of long before the western civilization touched our shores…To criticize one’s own identity, to make light of all the rights our people and dismiss it as though it’s a “never going to happen” situation, and not be inspired by those standing in pure Aloha, as they were raised “keiki o ka ‘aina” children of the land, and now they are adults and accountable to their own actions, we expect them to not STAND and fulfill a kuleana that we have been educating them for, is absurd. Please be respectful of our Native Hawaiian community and those that are Non Native, those that are STANDING on the Mauna to protect it for the next 7 generations. This is a kuleana that has been passed on by our Kupuna and Ali’i, guided and supported by Ke Akua… This is the HUMAN condition… no “pure selfish research at the expense of an entire culture and race” required…. As I close, I did have a few questions: The article failed to say, “How many LOCAL HILO residents CURRENTLY are employed, with estimated salary ranges?” “How long have they been on the job” and “WHERE ARE THE LOCAL HILO RESIDENTS’ that have these jobs? If you could do some research on those questions that would be most appropriate, in addition to mentioning that there was a telescope project BEFORE THE TMT that NASA SCRAPPED BECAUSE IT WAS TIRED OF FIGHTING THE COMMUNITY… I WAS HERE FOR THAT MEETING AND IT WAS A VICTORY FOR THE PEOPLE. The Native Hawaiian community here in Hawaii and Around the world are finally saying “Draw the Line at 13” and “Enough is Enough”. There is only ALOHA in this endeavor and it is ALOHA that is bringing ALL people together.. that is Hawaii’s gift to the world… Aloha

    1. The TMT will expand humanity’s collective knowledge with new scientific discoveries and thus benefit future generations to come.

  3. 140 permanent jobs yes still not true because most are not qualified so that number is less. This is not a “boost”. A boost would be something like sustainable agriculture, investing in infrastructure, and sustainable anything for an island over 150,000 people. Yes it is easy to be bought out and give out free money to make schools and others happy. Yes from an outside perspective it looks like a great deal. Do not be ignorant to think everyone thinks like this. Know that there are others who have different perspectives than your own. That they hold value in different things than you do. I am talking about your host culture that believes the top area of this mountain is the single most sacred site in the entire world according to their tradition. You can ignore it but you can not deny it. This is why this area was labeled as conservation land. The criteria to build on that land has been ignored and that is why there is such a blow up about this now. Aloha

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