Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser!
You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription.Subscribe Now
You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription.Subscribe Now
Sandra Dawson has been shepherding plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope through Hawaii’s regulatory labyrinth for the past five years, and now, pending resolution of one last appeal, construction of the estimated $1.4 billion astronomy endeavor near the top of Mauna Kea is poised to begin.
Final approval from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources came in April, and the University of Hawaii, which leases the mountaintop land from the state land board and hosts a dozen other telescopes up there as well, now is negotiating with the TMT Observatory Corp. about how much it should charge TMT to sublease.
The TMT corporation originally was a partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California system and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. Newer partners include agencies from Japan, China and India, who will augment the $125 million worth of funding that has been provided so far by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Dawson is a graduate of Grafton High School in West Virginia, and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international studies from Claremont Graduate University in California. She worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for 20 years before coming to Hawaii to take on the TMT project.
"My job (with JPL) was the environmental impact statements for spacecraft going to the outer planets," Dawson said last week. "Then when we launched the Pluto mission, we had nothing else that was going to launch for a while, so I said I want to do something different. And that happened to be TMT."
Now 64, Dawson says she loves living in the Hilo area with her husband Dwayne, a retired United Methodist minister, and can’t think of any reason to retire or leave Hawaii except to be closer to her three children and grandchildren in California and other family in West Virginia.
"We love the place we live, we love the job, we love the work, but the pull is the pull that anyone would have," she explained.
She fondly recalled a public meeting last week at which "five people hugged me and kissed me." At JPL, she said, "I once had a co-worker who had been out sick and he came back, and I hugged him, and I got taken aside and told that if you want to be taken seriously around here you can’t go around hugging people."
Meanwhile, work continues on the TMT project — there’s a National Science Foundation-funded conference next week on Hawaii island being attended by about 150 people from around the world representing parties that might want to also be involved with TMT. And Dawson meets regularly with a group that will administer the TMT partnership’s $1 million-a-year grant to promote education on Hawaii island.
"Giving back to the island has been a real theme of our board," she said.
Question: The state Board of Land and Natural Resources signed off on this (Thirty Meter Telescope) in April, but then there’s another lawsuit?
Answer: There’s an appeal.
Q: On what grounds?
A: It’s the same grounds that were against the original decision. Though not presuming to speak for them, it seems the plaintiffs do not think the University of Hawaii should have a lease on Mauna Kea or the right to manage it; that no observatories belong on Mauna Kea, that instead it should be kept for cultural practice; and they object to TMT’s visual impact on Mauna Kea and other parts of the island.
Q: Will that appeal hold up anything?
A: No, we’re moving forward. The final step of that, the oral argument, is in December.
Q: How many approval processes has the TMT project had to go through?
A: There was the Chapter 43 environmental impact statement, for which we did seven public meetings for each phase — 14 total — plus approval by the Mauna Kea Management Board; approval by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents; approval of the design by the Mauna Kea Management Board’s Design Review Team; approval of the conservation district use application (CDUA) by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources; a contested case hearing; and issuance of the CDUP (permit) by the land board. There also were a number of intermediate approvals by the Mauna Kea Management Board and UH. There were 22 public meetings, not counting the contested case.
Q: What is the University of Hawaii’s role in all this?
A: The Mauna Kea Science Reserve is conservation district land owned by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, with a lease to the University of Hawaii. All the observatories on Mauna Kea have sub-leases with UH. TMT and UH will be negotiating a sub-lease. … That could not happen until after the CDUP was issued, which happened in April.
Q: What is the genesis of the TMT?
A: The project came out of a recognition that a larger, new telescope needed to be built, and the technology seemed to indicate that 30 meters was about the state of the technology for a larger mirror. The largest mirror in the world right now, which is Keck’s (the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea), is 10 meters. …
So Canada wanted to build a 30-meter-class telescope, Cal Tech wanted to build one and University of California wanted to build one. Recognizing that there was not enough funding or expertise to build three, they came together. And that’s how the TMT 30-meter telescope project came into being. The major funding for the development to date has come from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Gordon Moore is the founder of Intel.
Q: What’s his interest?
A: He lives on Hawaii island part of the time, and he’s been very interested in astronomy — he and his family — and, in fact, they’ve contributed to the Keck telescopes for various things. They love science and they love Hawaii island.
Q: At what point did he come into the picture?
A: About five years ago. They started providing funding, and they did it in an interesting way. Half of the money from them every year goes to Cal Tech and half goes to UC. … So when it’s $30 million, each gets $15 million. And it all goes to the TMT Observatory Corp. to pay for the telescope. That’s how we got started, and that’s been the primary funding, about $125 million to date.
Q: What is in it for the newer partners from Japan, Canada and India?
A: They get two important things out of it. One, because it’s an observatory, they get observing time.
That’s really important because all the discoveries that the observatories make are made public, but the scientists with the observing time get it first. Right now, on Mauna Kea, we have people doing research who have won the Nobel Prize, the MacArthur “genius” award, the big science prize in Japan, so there are a lot of prizes, and Mauna Kea is the home of those. So what you get is you get to be the first, to make the discovery. And then you share it with the world.
The other thing they get is to develop technology. The TMT mirror will have 492 segments. That’s how you get 30 meters. … Keck has 36. We’re going to 492, and spares. So the countries want to learn how to do these mirrors, because you can use these mirrors for other observatories and other things.
They also get to develop instruments, or work on them, and develop various technologies that they can then use for astronomy and other purposes.
Q: Why Hawaii?
A: We studied all these different sites for five years. … The two best places were a mountain in Chile and in Hawaii. It depends on what kind of astronomy you’re doing, … but when all is said and done, Chile and Mauna Kea are two best places in the world right now to do astronomy.
But, Hawaii had benefits for us. One thing, of the 12 telescopes on Mauna Kea, TMT board members are or have been on the boards of the W.M. Keck Telescope, the Gemini Observatory (Gemini North on Mauna Kea and Gemini South in Chile), and the Canada France Hawaii Telescope. And, of course, our Japanese board members are involved in the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea.
The infrastructure is great here. In Chile we would have had to put in a road, electricity and a lot of infrastructure. Also it is in the U.S., so there is stability of the government and the currency. So for a lot of those reasons, our people really liked the idea of Mauna Kea.
For science, you could have made an argument for either place. I think the science leans towards Mauna Kea because of some of the science they want to do, but there were a lot of other reasons.
Q: What is the science they want to do?
A: I’ve had hundreds of meetings here with people to tell them about TMT, and when we get to the science, I tell them that after the first level, I’m going to be tap dancing. But there is some really exciting science, there really is. You’ve heard about the extra-solar planets that have been found, planets around other suns? We went from not knowing for sure about any, about 15 years ago, to knowing about hundreds. TMT, with its bigger mirrors and greater accuracy, can get closer to finding out if there are any habitable zones for life. We could discover planets that could have life on them.
Q: That would be exciting.
A: Yes, that would be The Thing. But there are other things, like how the universe started, and how galaxies and stars formed. We don’t know, but we can look back. When you look through a telescope, the further away something is, what you’re doing is looking back in time, because it takes longer for the light to get here. So you’re looking at something that happened a billion, two billion years ago.
Q: Do you think there’s a beginning point?
A: Astronomy right now can get within 400 million years of what we call the Big Bang.
Q: That assumes a beginning point. I mean, the universe is everything, right? So perhaps we’re just trying to explore as much of it as we can, not really go to the beginning of it, right?
A: Yes. You know, actually I’m reading a book right now for my entertainment called “The Short History of Everything.” The author gets to the beginning of the universe, and he says, well, what if this universe is just one of many universes — and, let me tell you, those are fascinating questions.
Q: How is the TMT being funded?
A: We’ve been mostly funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The Japanese government just OK’d its funding, coming in as a 25 percent partner. It’s a big deal — a really big deal. The other countries have to commit to their levels of funding, but, we all want to start construction April 1, 2014, so we have to all the funding committed by then.
Q: What is the estimated construction cost of this?
A: About $1.4 billion.
Q: How long will it take to build and how many people will be employed?
A: About eight years to build, and we expect to have 300 construction workers. … Then when we start operations, there will be between 120 and 140 positions. The goal is to have as many of those positions as possible be local.
Q: And maintenance? How much do you think it will cost to run every year?
A: I’m going to say somewhere between $25 and $30 million a year, but don’t hold me to that.
Q: It’s an 18-story building?
A: Calling it “stories” is really … It’s like a large dome with a telescope in it. It’s not stories. Now, one of the things we really worked hard at was making it fit into Mauna Kea as much as possible. … So we’ve been meeting with a group of local people, a design-review committee, for the last four years; we’ve taken every stage of our design to them. That’s part of the reason it’s going to be a reflective paint, instead of white.
Q: To blend in?
A: Right. And we’re going to be down on a plateau. We’re not going to be up high; we’re going to be down.
Q: So people won’t be able to see it, like from Waimea, for example?
A: One of the few places where you will be able to see it from is Waimea. Fourteen percent of the island will be able to see the telescope. It’s the Waikoloa-Waimea area that will be able to see it. It won’t be Hilo or other parts of the island.
Q: How much of an imposition is it going to be on the property up there, considering the number of other telescopes that are already there?
A: About 10 years ago, after having some criticism, and recognizing the criticism, UH did a new master plan and said from now on we won’t build any more telescopes up on any puus, the cinder cones on the mountain, and they designated a place down on a plateau, 500 feet below where the other telescopes were, and said any more telescopes will be built down on this plateau. That plateau was picked because it’s a lava field. There’s no wekiu bugs on it — they’re in the cinder cone and we’re on the lava field. There aren’t plants, there aren’t any recognized archaeological sites or cultural sites. So that site was chosen
specifically for that. So that’s where we are.
Q: What about the objections from Hawaiian cultural groups?
A: We have had some 20-some public meetings, and in those public meetings we have had people from all walks of life and all ethnic backgrounds in Hawaii. We have had people who are environmentalists and Hawaiians who are for the project, and we’ve had environmentalists and Hawaiians who are against the project. …
Now, there are some people who really don’t want any telescopes on Mauna Kea; it’s a deeply held belief on their part that there should not be any telescopes on Mauna Kea. For those people there is absolutely nothing that we could have done; that’s just a fact.
In our conservation district use application we tried to address in it all the eight criteria for building on Mauna Kea. The Land Board voted unanimously to accept that CDUA.
The hearing officer then held contested case hearings and read everything and concluded that, yes, we met all the criteria and should get a permit. The Land Board then voted again unanimously that, yes, TMT met all the criteria and should get the permit.
So we have done everything that we can do. We’ve got mitigations that we are committed to. We put in our EIS even more than are required. Everything we said we would do was put into the conservation district use permit, so now it’s not a matter of does TMT want to do these nice things; it’s now a matter of our permit that we must do these things.