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Hawaii: Construction of Telescopes at Mauna Kea Science Reserve

Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Criterion for ACHP Involvement:

  • This project will adversely affect properties of religious and cultural significance to Native Hawaiian organizations (Criterion 4).

Recent Developments

In January 2002, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) held a final round of Section 106 consultation meetings on its plans to provide funding for the construction of four, and perhaps ultimately six, small telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory near the summit of the dormant volcano Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii.

Mauna Kea observatories, Hawaii



Mauna Kea observatories, HI
(photo courtesy of Richard Wainscoat)



These meetings with NASA, ACHP, the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Officer, and the Native Hawaiian consulting parties focused on a draft Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) developed by NASA. The draft MOA, which includes provisions for creation of space science educational and cultural outreach programs for Native Hawaiians, is based on comments NASA received in numerous meetings and correspondence over the past year.


The two existing large telescopes at the Keck observatory are the most powerful telescopes in the world and play a primary role in NASA’s Origins Program, which studies how stars and planets evolve and whether life may exist on other worlds. The observatory is run by the California Association for Research in Astronomy, a consortium of universities, and is located within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, which is owned by the State of Hawaii and leased to the University of Hawaii. The Mauna Kea Science Reserve is home to several observatory facilities and a total of 13 telescopes. (For more information on the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, visit and select “Mauna Kea.”)

Mauna Kea contains numerous historic properties, ranging from a National Historic Landmark prehistoric stone adze quarry to natural landscape features associated with Native Hawaiian cultural traditions. NASA has concurred with the determination of the Hawaii SHPO that the summit of Mauna Kea is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, and that the cinder cone on which the new telescopes would be placed is a part of another historic property eligible for the National Register.

The SHPO has stated that the historic district “encompasses a sufficient concentration of historic properties (i.e., shrines, burials, and culturally significant landscape features) that are historically, culturally, and visually linked within the context of their setting and environment.” Even with the new telescopes added, the area occupied by all of the Keck telescopes and associated facilities will be only a small portion of the Mauna Kea summit region.

In consultation with the SHPO, NASA has determined that construction of the telescopes would adversely affect the historic properties through additional disturbance to the structural and visual integrity of the summit. In September 2000, ACHP accepted NASA’s invitation to participate in the consultation process in order to assist NASA in meeting the requirements of Section 106.

In February 2001, ACHP assisted NASA at consultation meetings and open houses for over two hundred people that provided Native Hawaiian organizations, local groups and communities, and the general public with information on NASA’s plans for the new telescopes, and sought comments on impacts to historic and cultural properties. At these meetings, NASA sought guidance on proposed educational mitigation measures are in the public interest and how the Native Hawaiian community could benefit best from NASA’s extensive educational resources.

Policy Highlights

The summit of Mauna Kea is an ideal place to locate telescopes. At the same time, the summit is of extreme importance to the cultural identity of Native Hawaiians. Recognizing this, NASA is proposing a package of creative mitigation measures in its draft MOA, including the development of new space science educational and cultural outreach programs for Native Hawaiians of all ages. Such “off-site” mitigation can be effective in addressing adverse effects to historic properties.

This project offers an interesting opportunity to examine how meaningful off-site mitigation can be conducted in connection with properties of traditional religious and cultural significance.

Staff contact: Tom McCulloch

Updated May 6, 2003

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