Astronomers make their case

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Native Hawaiian astronomer Paul Coleman says the Thirty Meter Telescope would not just help unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also provide him a link to his ancestors.


Native Hawaiian astronomer Paul Coleman says the Thirty Meter Telescope would not just help unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also provide him a link to his ancestors.

Coleman, along with fellow astronomer Heather Kaluna, were the last of TIO International Observatory’s witnesses called in its ongoing contested case hearing this past week.

In his written testimony, presented Thursday at the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo, he explained his lineage goes back to the King David Kalakaua line, and therefore connects him with the Kumulipo, or creation chant.

“So, for me, using the TMT which will allow us to look back in time as far as possible, is in the Hawaiian sense, literally investigating my ancestors,” Coleman said in his testimony. Under cross-examination, he elaborated by saying he sees himself as related to all parts of the universe, if he goes back far enough.

Coleman disagreed with Hawaiians who oppose the project because they view Mauna Kea as sacred.

The 180-foot-tall telescope, if built in Hawaii and not an alternate site in the Canary Islands, would be located on the mountain’s northern flank at 13,100 feet above sea level. Currently, 13 telescopes are located on the mountain, with a dozen around the summit area, though up to three could be removed by the time TMT is built.

“If we could agree what’s going on on Mauna Kea is good for the benefit of Hawaiians as a people then I believe we would not only have the ability to remove the kapu, but we should do it,” he said, in response to a question from Lanny Sinkin, representing the Temple of Lono.

While acknowledging he is not an expert on Hawaiian religious practices, Coleman said he views many of the customs carried out on the summit as being a more recent development, aided by the Mauna Kea Access Road.

“Mauna Kea is just a tough place,” he said, referring to its high elevation and extreme climate. “You’d have to hike up the mountain to do any sort of special ceremony and then hike back down, and that’s my perspective.”

Coleman acknowledged his support for the $1.4 billion project, which has raised an emotional debate surrounding Hawaiian sovereignty and respect for traditional beliefs, hasn’t made him popular with some of its opponents.

“They have disrespected me, but I’m pretty thick-skinned so I just ignore it,” he said. “They question my Hawaiianess, for one, question my genealogy, question whether I am sincere in my beliefs, things like that.”

Coleman said he has been called a “coconut,” which he later saw as a compliment because of the plant being prized in Polynesia.

At least one of the opponents complimented him during cross-examination.

“I’m actually proud of what you’ve accomplished,” said Harry Fergerstrom, who has been abrasive with other TMT supporters during the exhaustive hearing. “If you can see a star, you can grab it. I agree with that.”

Kaluna, who was raised in Pahoa, studied astronomy at University of Hawaii at Hilo and UH-Manoa.

She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Paleontology.

In her testimony, she said she has conducted observations at telescopes on the mountain and volunteered at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.

Kaluna said she also feels a strong connection to the mountain and has given offerings and prayers at the ahulele behind the visitor center.

“I see Maunakea as a special place that allows us to understand and study our origins,” she said. “As one’s origin and genealogy are critical aspects of Hawaiian culture, I view the pursuit of astronomy on Maunakea to be a beautiful blend of culture and science.”

But, Kaluna added, she believes it’s important to limit the development of facilities on the mountain to maintain the balance between culture and science.

Navigator Chad Kalepa Baybayan testified earlier in support of the project.

The quasi-judicial hearing, which started with witness testimony in October, is scheduled through January.

A previous hearing in 2011 resulted in a favorable recommendation, but the state Supreme Court ruled the state Board of Land and Natural Resources violated due process rights of opponents by voting for the permit prior to the start of that review.

Hilo Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura issued a verbal ruling last month that a contested case should also have been held for the project’s sublease. He has not yet issued a written ruling, which adds another layer of uncertainty.


The telescope organization’s partners are Caltech, University of California, Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy and national institutes in Japan, China and India.

Email Tom Callis at

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