Richard Ha: Embracing Past and Future

Imagine a future Hawai’i freed from its dependency on shipped-in fossil fuels. Imagine a future Hawai’i maintaining its reputation as a world-class destination for cutting-edge science, in concert with a celebration of Hawaiian history, culture, and knowledge. Imagine a future Hawai’i with a stronger agricultural base, and less reliant on food boated over from the US mainland and elsewhere. Imagine a future Hawai’i where these things happen, enabling the local population, in a variety of professions, to pursue meaningful jobs. And, in the process, realize their dream of being empowered, independent, self-directing, and sustainable.

This is Richard Ha’s dream. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is part of his vision.

Richard Ha’s father helping create the Mauna Kea Access Road.
Screen shot of the PBS video “First Light,” showing Richard Ha, Sr. paving the way with his bulldozer for the Mauna Kea Access Road.

Richard was born on O‘ahu while his father was away serving in the military. When he was two years old, his family moved to Hilo, on the Big Island, and he has lived there ever since. As the junior son to Richard Ha, who helped bulldoze the pathway for the Mauna Kea Access Road up to the summit in 1964, Richard recalls that “the only thing I knew about the telescopes was that my dad made the road to the summit. He was a proud man, and I didn’t hear him say one word that it wasn’t the wrong thing to do.”

After an initially unsuccessful stint at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Richard was drafted into the Vietnam War. After he came back home, he returned to the university with a mission and graduated with a degree in accounting. Afterward, he was president of the 600-acre Hamakua Springs Country Farms, where three generations of his family worked, in Pepe‘ekeo, on the Hāmākua coast.

The Values of Knowledge and Education

Richard frequently honors the wisdom in stories his father told, and he prioritized education enough to return to college after the Vietnam War to attain his own degree. In addition, Richard also understands the importance a benefactor can have to achieving one’s dreams. His cousin Frank Kamahele is an example of just such a story.

When he was 11 years old, Frank was convinced he would become an airplane pilot, though he had no idea how that could come about. Frank also loved basketball, and while he attended Pāhoa High School, a new coach from Texas helped him get into the University of Hawai‘i on a basketball scholarship. At college, Frank was able to encounter the Air Force ROTC program, which he joined. That opened the way for him to go to flight school, join the Air Force, become a jet pilot, and, later, serve as the manager of the Hilo and Kona airports.

It is precious when a person shows up into another’s life, and makes all the difference to that life turning out for the better. There are factors that increase the odds of such moments manifesting. On one hand is the capacity people have that they can contribute; on another hand is the variety of resources to match the diverse potential of those who could benefit. Consider the giving community of Hawai‘i, strongly and securely based, and with a broad range of talents and knowledge to share. This is Richard’s picture: “My object is to set the next generation up for success.”

Richard  Ha and his family.
Richard Ha and his family. Photo courtesy of Richard Ha

Richard points out that the TMT fits in with this picture. “What TMT represents is the best science, astronomy, in the world. That will elevate our reputation and the reputation of the whole state.” That is for Hawai’i to hold its place as a research destination for scientists and engineers, and that fits hand-in-glove with enabling the state to support its keiki.

The TMT and other observatories’ outreach programs introduce curious students to the science and engineering happening right on our island. Together with other support, like the TMT’s THINK Fund, students and teachers are financially supported in the pursuit of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. In 2014, TMT initiated its first $1 million per year contribution to the fund, to continue yearly through its 19-year sublease on Mauna Kea. Over the past five years it has assisted 26,000 students and 1,000 teachers through its support of STEM activities on the Big Island, enabling students to pursue their interests in a variety of fields such as robotics, marine sciences, agriculture, and environmental and conservation programs.

In addition, TMT partners with the Akamai Workforce Initiative, which provides college students with summer internships at observatories and other high-tech companies in Hawai‘i. By pairing students with mentors, this helps to advance and increase the presence of Hawai‘i’s students in STEM. Furthermore, TMT’s Hawaii Workforce Pipeline Program has striven, since 2009, to prepare, train, and hire specifically local residents for skilled jobs with higher wages.

Richard’s passion to support Hawai‘i Island’s education is why he is a board member of PUEO (Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities). This nonprofit aims to improve the educational opportunities of Big Island students, to increase knowledge of both cultural practices such as navigation, and contemporary science and technology. He hopes that someday Mauna Kea will include a cultural center above the clouds, a monument to Hawaiian history and culture that can also be used to connect lessons learned closer to sea level with the awesomeness of the mountain’s night sky.

Richard  aboard the Hawaiian deep ocean canoe, the Hōkūleʻa.
Richard Ha aboard the Hōkūleʻa. Photo courtesy of Richard Ha

Diversify the Economy

Hawai‘i depends primarily upon tourism and the military for its economy.

The Big Island’s precarious relationship with tourism has suffered keenly lately, with Kīlauea’s lower Puna eruptions in 2018 and the current Covid-19 pandemic, both of which effectively brought tourism and associated businesses to a halt.

Other factors, Richard points out, will assuredly affect tourism in years to come, particularly with an unavoidable eventual decrease in petroleum resources, whereby travel to Hawai‘i would become either more expensive, or impossible, or both. This is especially pressing in Richard’s view, and is why he expresses great support for the development of alternative energies in Hawai‘i: solar, wind, and particularly geothermal which, if developed correctly, could spell major benefits to empower the native Hawaiian community.

Imagine a Hawai‘i that embraces both the future and the past. Where a variety of lifestyles exist in harmony, from living entirely off-the-grid, to adopting all the latest in technological gadgetry. Where we are all regularly reminded to pay due respect to the ancestors whose knowledge brought the kanaka maoli here, and enabled them to survive and thrive. And where its people are suitably educated and supported, who can then create a full range of enterprises that enable them to stay with the families and land that they love.

The TMT is one—not the only—step in the direction to move Hawai‘i in this direction. It will certainly be a massive asset to the scientific community, and much, much more.

For more information:

Mauna Kea & TMT

Hamakua Springs Country Farms


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