Telescope employees find future uncertain as protest blocks access to Mauna Kea

Telescope employees find future uncertain as protest blocks access to Mauna Kea

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Thirty Meter Telescope protest at the base of Mauna Kea has had a direct impact on scientific operations at the mountain.

As protesters block the road to the summit of Mauna Kea, it’s impacting the work existing observatories do ― and creating tension on the Big Island.

Observatories evacuated their employees from Mauna Kea last week, fearing their access might be jeopardized. And only a handful of technicians have returned for maintenance.

More than 500 employees work at the observatories, and about 50 to 75 of them would be up at the summit on any given day.

The standoff is also taking a toll on Native Hawaiians who support the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.

[The Governor’s Office has renewed its call for public comments on the Thirty Meter Telescope. To submit a comment, click here.]

“With the emotions going on on the summit, it makes it difficult … to even function just in the community itself," said Ivan Look, operation manager of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

"Even neighbors, we’re all kind of thinking different things, so it’s uncomfortable I guess.”

Look, a Kamehameha Schools graduate, is concerned that if protesters stop TMT they might try to get rid of the other observatories, too.

“This is our livelihood. This is work,” he said. “I went to school to be an engineer. And it was hard for me to find work right away because Hawaii we don’t really have engineering, exciting things going on.”

[Read more: Gov. Ige makes surprise visit to Mauna Kea, where TMT protesters remain for 10th day]

Normally, there are four to five Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope workers up at the summit on any given day.

But with the blockade in place, they can’t get up there to check on sensitive and valuable equipment.

In fact, no science is happening right now on the mountain.

That impacts astronomers around the world, including Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, who grew up on a first nations reservation ― the indigenous population in Canada ― and now works at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

“I can’t really tell what we’re going to miss because we’re not observing right now,” she said. “So it could be any discoveries, any science we are doing here which is really broad and wide.”

In fact, the telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatories are considered the most scientifically productive observatories in the world ― when they’re operating.

Shelly Pelfrey, another Kamehameha Schools graduate, works at Keck.

She’s the outreach coordinator there, and said the conflict at the mountain has taken a toll.

“You could be a complete proponent of astronomy and everything that’s going on on the mountain, but your next door neighbor may not be,” she said. “So there’s this stress level at home.”

Master Navigator Kalepa Baybayan says it’s been hard to be one of the few Native Hawaiians vocally advocating for the telescopes over the last decade or so.

“I’m a navigator by trade. Navigation is a pretty lonely job. You do it by yourself," he said. "But you do it because you’re convinced that what you’re doing is good for society what you’re doing is good for the Hawaiian community.”

He’s now hoping to inspire others to speak out in support of the science on the summit.

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