FreeRads Podcast: Humbling Astronomy – The Politics Behind the Thirty Meter Telescope

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that has been proposed for construction on Mauna Kea has caused controversy and faced powerful resistance from Native Hawaiians as they hold the mountain to be sacred. The conflict is often framed as a struggle between Science vs. Religion. However, there is a larger context of colonial history that drives the resistance efforts that many scientists are not reflecting on.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

–Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot : A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Astronomy as a study of the stars and the universe is often described as a spiritual practice. The sentiment goes that peering into the origins of the universe leads to an understanding in the depths of our humanity. The recently proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which would be one of the most powerful land telescope ever constructed, has purportedly pitted science against religion when astronomers sought to build it on Mauna Kea, the sacred mountain of Native Hawaiians. While this narrative is legitimate because the mountain is an embodiment of the Native Hawaiians’ divine creators, the conflict sets up Native Hawaiians unfavorably because of science’s supposed objective superiority to faith.

But to understand the foundation of the conflict requires an understanding of the colonial history of the State of Hawai’i. The fight against the TMT is a struggle against colonial state powers. As Kealoha Pisciotta, the spokeswoman of Mauna Kea Hui which is the group protesting the telescope construction, explains, “This is a very simple case about land use. It’s not science versus religion. We’re not the church. You’re not Galileo.”

After escalated sit-in protests on the mountain to prevent the construction of the telescope and a victorious lawsuit against the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, Native Hawaiian resistance to the telescope have successfully halted its construction. In this standstill moment, we wanted to reflect on this conflict and how science can be a colonial project. Join us in this critique of astronomy in our first podcast for Free Radicals.

For more on the Native Hawaiian resistance efforts to the Thirty Meter Telescope, visit:

For more on the science behind the Thirty Meter Telescope and the position of astronomy in this moment, check out the article “Politics In Hawaii Threatens To End Astronomy As We Know It

Andy Su (they/he) is a rocket science engineer turned community organizer. They are working towards becoming a high school physics teacher to work with youth in envisioning a liberatory future in the stars.

Tracy Zhao is an existential grad student and community organizer who has a love-hate relationship to science.