The early Polynesian navigators were the scientists and astronomers of their day.  Such a description is borne out by their curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon and their ingenious development of the technology to explore the vast reaches of the Pacific.  This technology encompassed not only the skills of creating the double-hulled sailing canoes but also the means of finding their way about the trackless ocean.  Way finding was accomplished primarily by knowledge of the stars, their motions across the sky and their changing positions depending on latitude.  These skills allowed them to discover and populate a vast area of the Pacific we call today the Polynesian Triangle: from Tahiti to Hawaii to Easter Island.  This “golden age” of exploration took place perhaps as early as 1000 A. D. with Hawai`i being settled about 1500 A.D.


By the time of the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, it appears that ocean voyaging had become a lost and mostly forgotten art. But Cook’s arrival introduced into the local culture new technologies of both ocean-going vessels and navigational techniques: telescopes and compasses and sextants, for example. By the time the missionaries arrived and began the development of a written Hawaiian language much of the ancient sea-faring knowledge had been lost.  Though the Hawaiians must have had hundreds of names for stars and other features of the sky they were mostly forgotten and, besides, the missionaries probably didn’t themselves know enough to ask!


King Kalakaua and the citizens of Honolulu were quite astounded and impressed by an astronomical expedition to Hawai`i in 1874 that came all the way from England to observe a transit of Venus: a passage of Venus in front of the Sun.  A compound along Fort Street in Honolulu was set aside for placing various telescopes to observe the phenomenon.  Later, in his travels to the US, King Kalakaua visited the Lick Observatory in California and expressed his feeling that one day Hawai`i should have such a telescope.  Kalakaua, the “Merrie Monarch” who revived Hawaiian traditions, was also very forward looking and eager to bring Hawai`i into the modern world. It was not until 1910 that an astronomical observatory was first established in Hawai`i.  It was developed for the specific purpose of viewing the predicted coming of Comet Halley.  It was located in what is today Kaimuki, on a hill along Seaview Avenue.  It was not a very good telescope and by 1958 it was razed before the termites did it in.


Modern-day astronomy really got its start with the advent in 1957-58 of the International Geophysical Year and the need for observations of the Sun during Hawaii’s daylight hours.  This led to the construction of a solar observatory at Makapu`u Point on Oahu as a part of a world-wide network of solar observations.  During this period the University of Hawaii developed plans for a permanent world-class solar observatory on Haleakala on Maui.  A high altitude site was a requisite for studying the faint glow of the corona which normally could be seen only during a total solar eclipse.  This observatory, named the Mees Solar Observatory, was completed in 1961.


It was during the final construction phase of the Haleakala observatory that an astronomer from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, took an interest in the astronomical potential of Hawaii’s high mountains.  He was Dr. Gerard Kuiper, a world-renowned planetary astronomer.  He was interested in the possibility of establishing a planetary observatory in Hawai`i and was responding to an invitation by the Hilo Chamber of Commerce.  His evaluation of Haleakala showed that to be an excellent site, but studies on Mauna Kea supported the possibility that it was even better.  A grant from Governor Burns made possible the bulldozing of a road to the summit.  Kuiper’s site testing led him to declare that Mauna Kea was probably the best site in the world for astronomical studies.  The high altitude of the mountain (almost 14,000 ft.), its isolation in the middle of the Pacific and its freedom from light contamination were among the factors that contributed to the perfection of the mountain.


Dr. Kuiper proceeded to apply to NASA for funds to build an observatory on Mauna Kea.  NASA, however, thought that it should consider proposals from other interested organizations, among which were Harvard University and the University of Hawai`i. The outcome was that the University of Hawaii’s proposal was awarded the grant to construct an 88-inch (2.2 meters) telescope on the mountain.  It was completed in 1970.  The knowledge of Mauna Kea’s outstanding qualities as an observation site spread like wild fire among the astronomical community and within a few years several more telescopes were constructed on the mountain.  Today there are some 13 telescopes on the mountain, constituting the world’s largest array of astronomical telescopes at the world’s best site for exploring the vast Universe!


Legend has it that the ancient Polynesian navigators looked upon Mauna Kea as a beacon guiding their voyages of discovery.  Today Mauna Kea is again a beacon guiding the modern explorers to discoveries beyond the celestial horizon.


Walter R. Steiger

December 2004