Statement on the Mauna Kea Master Plan

Thomas R. Geballe
Staff Astronomer, Gemini Observatory
June 15, 2000

The Gemini Observatory supports the approval of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan, as an appropriate balance between the needs of the energetic and rapidly advancing science of astronomy and the other needs of our community. If it is approved we look forward to helping the astronomy community live up to its responsibilities under the plan. As astronomy and technology advance there will be a requirement for additional and new kinds of telescopes, and thus we are pleased that the proposed plan allows the possibility of a measured amount of further development on Mauna Kea beyond what is currently there. This possibility not only is crucial to progress in astronomy, it is important to the vitality of our local scientific community and therefore to the vitality of the larger community. At the same time, even though we are part of the astronomy community, Gemini supports the current plan to place off limits more of the summit area than previous versions of the plan. We also are gratified that management of the summit will take place locally and with the involvement of local advisory committees.

In the future ground-based astronomy will continue to be a critical contributor to our knowledge of the universe. We reiterate that the consensus of the international community of astronomers is that, although there are many good sites for ground-based astronomy, overall Mauna Kea is the best of these. It is a precious scientific resource: for astronomers searching for planets orbiting other stars, studying star formation, observing colliding galaxies, and a myriad of other phenomena; for physicists learning about black holes; for cosmologists trying to determine the very origin and ultimate fate of the universe; and for scientists in each of those fields as well as in biology and chemistry who are trying to understand how life began on earth and possibly elsewhere. It is fair to say that we would not know as much about the universe as we do now had the telescopes presently on Mauna Kea been built elsewhere. The same statement should apply in the future. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences continues to see ground-based astronomy as a high national priority. Last month it released a report to guide the U.S. astronomical community and funding agencies during the next ten years in building on the existing astronomy program. The report includes the following statement, " In the first decade of the new millennium humanity is poised to take a giant step forward in understanding the universe and our place within it." It is important that Mauna Kea be a part of this giant step forward.

From a different perspective, it is clear to me that, although astronomy has deprived us of an absolutely pristine Mauna Kea, it has given much back in return. It has given our citizens direct access to Mauna Kea. It has given our community a closer experience of mankind's ongoing exploration of the universe than probably any other community in the world. It allows our neighbors to share in the knowledge, excitement and wonder of astronomy, via direct contact with scientists visiting schools, via visits to portable planetariums such as the one purchased by Gemini, via the Onizuka Center, and via many other outreach activities actively supported by the various observatories. Astronomy has created interesting and technically challenging jobs within our community and an increased opportunity for our children to find meaningful local employment. Observatory employees and their spouses or partners are volunteers in countless service organizations, are resources for our schools, are organizers, coaches, and participants in athletics, and much more. They and their families benefit from being here, but I believe that they also add considerably to the richness of living here for everyone.

I moved to Hawai'i almost 20 years ago, excited to be venturing into the scientific unknown. I and my colleagues have shared this thrill with many people in our community. Perhaps it was a similar sense of adventure that drove the Polynesians who first settled these islands. The excitement of exploring the unknown possessed by those first Hawai'ians out on a seemingly endless sea, which has been captured again today by the voyages of the Hokulea, also is related to the sense of adventure of the Hawai'ian observatories, present and future, exploring the vast universe, seeking the answers to some of the simplest and yet most profound questions that can be asked. The Mauna Kea Master Plan allows this exploration to advance and I hope that it is acceptable to the Regents and indeed to the citizens of Hawai'i.