The National Science Foundation and TMT

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Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, Trustee, Maui

This month I have invited media entrepreneur Gloria Borland to share her manaʻo on TMT via my column.

By Gloria Borland

I grew up in Hawaiʻi but lived in Washington, D.C., for over 30 years. In 1994, while in D.C., my minority-owned small business was invited by NASA to bid on revamping and managing NASA Television so I studied all NASA space flight centers around the country.

Photo: Gloria Borland
Gloria Borland

I have observed NASA and the astronomy industry close-up. The future lies in space telescopes, such as Hubble and Webb.

TMT and other proposed ground telescopes are becoming obsolete. It is a waste of taxpayer money to continue to prop-up ground-based telescopes. The National Science Foundation (NSF) should be investing in space telescopes.

The argument for TMT is that, located above 40% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it will provide the sharpest images of space and, thus, produce the best science. However, the Webb Space Telescope currently orbiting the sun one million miles from Earth is vastly superior.

It is a joke to compare photographs of space taken at a measly 13,000 feet above sea level, to what can already be seen from one million miles above the Earth! Webb is already producing the sharpest images of space. No image taken from the summit of Maunakea can compete.

Funding TMT is akin to the NSF throwing money at stage-coach owners after the locomotive engine was invented.

So if ground-based astronomy is becoming obsolete, why this persistent land grab at Maunakea?

Because the ground-based astronomy industry needs to protect its jobs and does not want to give up the precious land it currently occupies.

Thus, the ground-based astronomy industry has supercharged its lobbying efforts in support of TMT – but are these jobs worthy of continuing tax-payer support when the astronomy industry in Hawaiʻi is guilty of systemic racism in its professional and managerial ranks?

For 55 years, the industry has failed to racially integrate its workforce; Hawaiʻi’s astronomy workforce is mostly imported. These workers, many of whom are from California, segregate themselves in their expensive gentrified enclave in Waimea. They are responsible for years of friction with the local community.

Industry managers defend their failure to hire local residents by claiming that people from Hawaiʻi are not scientists, playing on stereotypes that our residents lack the proper education. Of course this is not true. Every year, Hawaiʻi residents graduate from the country’s top science schools including MIT and Harvard.

My brother attended public school in Hawaiʻi and graduated from MIT in 1980. As a graduate student, he was hired by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, but his boss was racist and he eventually left NASA. There are many talented scientists from Hawaiʻi who will not tolerate an environment plagued by systemic racism.

Today, NASA Headquarters is more diverse, as are many of the astronomy centers on the East Coast. But the astronomy industry at Maunakea is not.

The country of Chile hosts 70% of the world’s telescopes. From the beginning, the Chilean government has demanded that the astronomy industry hire and train Chilean nationals to work at the telescopes – a requirement that Hawaiʻi’s political leaders failed to impose on the industry.

Instead, the astronomy industry at Maunakea is a “jobs program for Californians.” Why would any community accept a jobs program that benefits outsiders and not its own residents?