HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Far-Seeing from Here – Part I: Up The White Mountain
Almost every night, the summit of Mauna Kea stands above the clouds. So, for many years, there was a small shed there, housing a tiny telescope; and University of Hawaii astronomers trekked up to it, all year round, to study the stars under the clearest skies on earth. What they had long wanted, of course, was a fully functional observatory, and in 1970, they got their wish.
To built it, there first had to be a road: a gravel-and-cinder route from the Saddle Road to a point nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. And up that road came trucks and construction equipment, and telescopic machinery, and, when the building was completed, a fragile, polished mirror 2.2 meters in diameter – it seemed enormous at the time – on a truck-trailer, creeping along at just a mile or so per hour, so as not to unsettle or – heaven forbid – shatter the great chunk of glass.
Hawaiians had for centuries held ceremonies at the summit. In their creation myths, Mauna Kea (literally the “white mountain”) is the piko – the navel, the bellybutton – of the people themselves. On the shores of nearby Lake Waiau, more than 10,000 feet above sea level, many Hawaiians still perform a ritual in which they place the umbilical cords of their newborns on tiny stone altars.
So, there were some who expressed discomfort at the new intrusion. But in general, the University’s astronomers – and especially the road that enabled the observatory’s construction and ongoing service – were welcomed. Before that, the summit had been attainable only on foot. Winter snow typically extends from the summit down to about 11,000 feet, occasionally as low as 9,000 feet. But now, anyone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle could attain the summit. This enabled the elderly and disabled to experience what it was like up there, and allowed far more people than ever before to go hiking or – especially – skiing, since they no longer had to hike back up between runs. (And where else in the world but here can you – within just a couple of hours – both ski in the snow and surf in the ocean?)
Small cabins at the 9,000-foot level were expanded into a year-round dormitory facility for the astronomers and the “night assistants” who ran the machinery for them, and who typically worked four nights in a row, then had four whole days off. Thus, no one had to make a daily commute from sea-level that might provoke altitude sickness: the headache, disorientation and shortness of breath that comes from going up too high too fast.
Before the 1970s had ended, however, three more observatories had been erected on Mauna Kea. Sentiment in the native Hawaiian community turned inexorably against further construction. And yet, despite their complaints to the University (which administers the summit), their protests at all levels of government, and their vociferous testimony at public hearings, two more observatories were built in the 1980s, and another five(!) were established in the ’90s.
Although the actual geological summit of Mauna Kea is and has always been reserved for Hawaiian cultural and religious activities – a ceremonial stone cairn marks the spot – almost all of the adjacent cinder cones now sport observatory buildings. And now, another observatory, which would house the world’s largest mirror, has been approved. This, over the objections not only of native Hawaiians, who see this as a desecration of their most sacred place; but also of environmental activists, who are rightly concerned that the summit’s fragile ecosystem is steadily being demolished, to the detriment of the plants and insects that live nowhere else.
Such antagonism would probably have boiled over into outright hostility, by now, had it not been for Imiloa. And I’ll tell you about that remarkable place next time.