Thirty Meter Telescope could boost Hawaii Island’s economy

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.

Categories: Community & Economy, Lifestyle, Technology