Interim Observatory Director, W. M. Keck Observatory Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority Board Member
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
June 30, 2023
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, June 30th, 2023. It is great to be here with Rich Matsuda. Rich, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
RICH MATSUDA: Happy to be here, David.
ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
MATSUDA: I am the Interim Observatory Director at the W. M. Keck Observatory.
ZIERLER: Tell me about serving in this interim role right now. What were the circumstances for this?
MATSUDA: The former Observatory director, Hilton Lewis, resigned after an impressive 37-year career at Keck Observatory, including nine years at the helm, and as of May 30, 2023, the board asked me to step into the interim Observatory director role while an international search is conducted for the Observatory's next director. I don't know exactly how long that search will take, but I'm it, until further notice. [laughs]
ZIERLER: What was your role prior to serving in this interim directorship, and do you expect to go back to that once the search is complete?
MATSUDA: My former role was associate director of external relations. As far as what comes next, a lot will depend on who is selected as the next director, and we will cross that bridge when we get to it.
ZIERLER: Are you essentially dual-hatted? Have you retained that portfolio of external relations?
MATSUDA: One of the roles I continue to fill not only for Keck but for all of the observatories on Maunakea, is serving as the astronomy representative on the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, the new entity being stood up by the state of Hawaiʻi to manage land use and activities on Maunakea. The other part of the associate director of external relations is to deepen and improve Keck's relationship with the local community. I've carried some of that over into the interim director role because I strongly believe it's important to who we are as an observatory. So, I continue to work on aspects of that as well, but the day to day of community relations has been mostly handed over to our very capable team.
ZIERLER: Some overall questions about the Keck Observatory. Of course, it is well known for producing some of the best ground-based astronomy in the entire world, leading to so many discoveries in the universe, leading to Nobel Prize winning discoveries in the universe. Administratively and organizationally, is the Keck Observatory independent, or is it part of a larger organization?
MATSUDA: It's formally organized as a 501(c)(3) scientific non-profit called the California Association for Research in Astronomy, doing business as the W. M. Keck Observatory. So, we have a board, made up of representatives of our institutional partners, University of California and Caltech. There are non-voting board liaisons that include the W. M. Keck Foundation, the University of Hawai'i and NASA. The Keck Foundation by virtue of their incredible gift that funded the construction of the telescopes; UH who holds the master lease for astronomy on Maunakea and whom we have a sub-lease with for Keck; and, NASA who we entered into a cooperative agreements which began in the late-90's and which gives the U. S. astronomy community access to time on Keck.
ZIERLER: Of all of the institutions that you mentioned—in academia, in government, at the state—what are the funding sources that make Keck run?
MATSUDA: The bulk of the funding comes from the University of California and Caltech partnership which provides operating funds. The cooperative agreement with NASA which is renewed every five years also provides significant funding. Funding for new capabilities such as instrumentation, adaptive optics facilities, data archives, and other technology comes from a number of sources such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, and private foundations such as the Keck Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation. We have also received funds from major private individual donors. I'm still learning this aspect of the observatory, and I hope I am not leaving anyone out.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can speak to why Maunakea is such a wonderful site for astronomical observation.
MATSUDA: Sure. I'm looking out my office window at Maunakea right now, and it is very instructive to see it as I describe why it is such a superb site. First of all, it is nearly 14,000 feet high, above 40% of Earth's atmosphere and typically above much of the water vapor in the atmosphere. Some wavelengths of light are absorbed by the atmosphere, so being up high means less of it is cut out. In addition, Maunakea is a shield volcano with gentle slopes. The tradewinds typically flow east to west over it in what is called a laminar flow with very little turbulence, as opposed what might happen if the tradewinds encountered jagged peaks. If it were not for the prevailing winds and laminar flow, the turbulence in the atmosphere above Maunakea would be much greater, with moving pockets of air of different temperatures, causing bending of the starlight which would blur images. In addition, the night skies above Maunakea are some of the darkest in the world because it is rural, there is a county lighting ordnance that protects dark skies, and there is an inversion layer that holds a layer of clouds beneath the summit that blocks lights from Hilo and other populated areas. Lastly, the temperature of the air is relatively stable because the islands are surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean that are relatively stable temperature-wise.
While Maunakea is remote, our base in Waimea is only an hour and a half away. So we're able to have headquarters where we can work unaffected by altitude, but still have good access to the mountaintop. This combination of factors make Maunakea one of the best places to conduct astronomy. The numbers prove it. The scientific impact measured by peer-reviewed science papers multiplied by the number of citations of those papers, cumulatively over the lifetime of the Keck telescopes, has made the twin Kecks the most productive ground-based telescopes ever. The combined scientific impact of all the telescopes on Maunakea make it the most scientifically productive site in the world.
ZIERLER: Of those dozen telescopes, are they all related in some way, either scientifically or administratively, or are they really independent operators?
MATSUDA: Administratively independent, although there is a lot of scientific cooperation that happens. These days, research teams tend to be larger and team members may have affiliations with multiple telescopes, so you'll see results that combine data taken on Keck with other telescopes on Maunakea, around the world, and from space missions.
ZIERLER: What does Keck do that makes it unique? What are its capabilities?
MATSUDA: A couple of things. The ten-meter diameter is among the largest in the current era and will continue to be until the Extremely Large Telescopes such as the European ELT, and possibly the TMT and GMT, come on line in about the next decade plus. If you think of the primary mirror as a light bucket capturing photons like a bucket would catch rain drops, then the bigger your bucket the better able we can detect these very faint objects being observed. That's a huge advantage. Another advantage is our adaptive optics system. Keck was a real pioneer in developing adaptive optics systems in astronomy, which measure and correct perturbations to the starlight caused by earth's atmosphere. There is a deformable mirror that reverses the blurring effects of the atmosphere in real-time. Keck has had a really good adaptive optics system, so that we can, especially at infrared wavelengths, basically operate as though that atmosphere is not there.
Then, the other real hallmark of Keck is that we have an instrumentation suite that we're constantly upgrading and replacing with new technology. Our strategy has been to develop versatile general use instruments, not overly specific in terms of targeted science cases. This has proven to be a strength for Keck, because the astronomers are very innovative and use these instruments in ways we didn't think about when they were first designed. There was one more thing I was going to say that is special about Keck, but I'm forgetting now. [laughs]
ZIERLER: We'll come back to it. Rich, I wonder if you can explain the concept of a master lease, the circumstances by which Keck is on Maunakea but that needs to be renegotiated and renewed for the long term.
MATSUDA: What it will be next is still to be decided by the new authority, but what we have currently and up until now is a sub-lease with the University of Hawai'i, the master lessor. All the leases expire in 2033, 65 years after the initial master lease between UH and the state was signed back in 1968. The management of the Scientific Reserve on Maunakea, which is on public lands, has been the responsibility of the University of Hawai'i. The arrangement has been that the University managed the site, Keck Observatory built the telescope with our own resources and assumed all the technical risk, and we share a percentage of Keck observing time with the University of Hawai'i for the privilege of operating on Maunakea.
In response to the deep conflict in Hawaiʻi regarding the plan to build TMT on Maunakea, the state legislature has created the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority. Any future leases to continue astronomy on Maunakea beyond 2033 will be with the authority.
The state House, in response to the TMT conflict, came up with a house resolution in 2021 to form a working group to envision how Maunakea could be managed in a different way that would address members of the Hawaiian community feeling their concerns were being ignored. After six months, that working group produced a report describing a new management model which then became a bill in the 2022 state legislature that passed and created the authority.
Keck Observatory wants to continue operations on Maunakea beyond 2033, and will have to request authorization from the new Authority. So, our land authorization will change from the University of Hawai'i being the master lease holder to the Authority having control. The Authority and UH are in a five-year transition period which starts tomorrow, actually. July 1, 2023. When we get to July 1, 2028, the new Authority will be managing Maunakea.
ZIERLER: Do you see this new Authority as increasing the likelihood that the master lease will be renewed in 2033?
MATSUDA: I think about how stuck we felt in 2019, when there were people camped on the Maunakea access road and the highway that fronts the access road. At times, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who were opposed to the decisions that were made about building TMT on Maunakea, and feeling that the process wasn't serving them, were driven to—and I don't mean to speak for them, but driven to protest – in some cases for nine months or more. The road was blocked to the summit. For a while, when the situation was intense, we removed our crews from the summit. Then, when we resumed operations, we were having to go through two gates, one that was put up by the protest group, and one that was put up by the state. Every day, going up and down, having to go through those gates. Tons of law enforcement, which cost the state a lot of money. A lot of tension in our community, even among family members and between friends.
Personally, I felt very uncertain and even pessimistic about the future of astronomy on Maunakea at that time. I contrast that to how I'm feeling about it now. As the astronomy representative on this new Authority, while we're just getting started and there's still tons of uncertainty—because this transition is not going to be easy; there are a lot of laws that need to be navigated and so forth—the fact is that there is a pathway, I believe, and I don't feel that we're stuck like I felt in 2019. There is still much uncertainty because there is a lot of work to be done, but personally I feel like there's a pathway forward to finding the right balance of astronomy working with the community to make those decisions. It might not be what any particular group who's a stakeholder on Maunakea would exactly want if they were in total control, but in reality, 2019 showed us that there is no such thing as total control. I feel good about the relationships that are forming among Authority members, and the discussions that are happening. Some of decisions are going to be really difficult, but we have leveled the playing field which has opened up dialogue. We have highly regarded native Hawaiian community members in decision-making roles at the table without thousands feeling their only recourse is to block the road and demonstrate. That is a long-winded way of saying that I do feel the path to a future lease for Keck is better today than in 2019.
ZIERLER: In your role in external relations, in talking with the native communities in Hawai'i, do you feel in some ways that this is a historical corrective to past leaders in astronomy in Hawai'i that were not interested or maybe were even unaware that the native communities had a voice, had interests, in what was happening on Maunakea?
MATSUDA: That's a difficult question. How about this? I'm not going to generalize, but I've been at Keck for 30 years so I'll just talk about my experience. I've been at various levels of leadership through my career. I think you said that one of the possibilities was that we were just not as aware as we should have been. I think that's surely the case. My personal journey has been an awakening of sorts, of really understanding more deeply. I think that we were doing science and operations, believing we were not hurting anyone, and we were so focused that we were in a silo without really understanding the impact on the community.
What woke me up was in 2014 when TMT tried to conduct their groundbreaking ceremony on Maunakea, and encountered resistance that felt a lot different than before. I know when Keck tried to build the outriggers about a decade earlier and there were public meetings, I heard some of the opposition then, but it didn't feel the same as what began in 2014 with the TMT protests.
I grew up in Hawai'i. I was born on O'ahu. I've lived on Hawai'i Island for 30 years. So, my family and I live in the community and we felt that upswelling of resistance to TMT, which spread to astronomy on Maunakea in general—that personally made me really question things and start to try to understand more about the history of what has happened here, my place in it, my family's place in it. I'm Japanese by descent. My great grandfather was the first of our family to move to Hawai'i in the late 1880s as a contract worker on a sugar plantation on Kauai, so I'm a third-generation Japanese American here. I was shaken by the TMT protests and stepped back to consider what was happening on Maunakea in the context of what has happened historically in Hawai'i. I think my examination of self was difficult, but perhaps easier than for somebody who's not born and raised here, who doesn't have roots here. If I was having a lack of awareness of community concerns and historical context as a third generation person in Hawai'i involved for nearly three decades in astronomy, then I think that would be indicative of a more widespread lack of awareness in astronomy organizations.
ZIERLER: In all of your conversations with people in the native community, I wonder if you could speak to the range of perspectives—that some people are protesting not being a part of the conversation and want to see TMT go forward with their input, all the way to people who are more militant, if you will, who say, "Under no circumstances should the TMT be built" or really there might not be any cause for astronomy on Maunakea. I wonder if you could speak to the diversity of opinions that you've heard.
MATSUDA: It spans everything from "There shouldn't be anything on the Mauna" to community members and native Hawaiians who are very pro-TMT. I hate to speak for others, but I'll just relay to you the things that I've taken away from many, many community conversations, being in the working group, and so forth, as the different pressure points have come up. Some of it is around the recognition of Maunakea as a sacred place to the native Hawaiian community, as a very special place, the piko or connection between human beings to the ancestors and Akua—sometimes translated as dieties or the natural elements. The summit of Maunakea is seen as the realm of Akua, a place that humans shouldn't go. So, there's a deeply spiritual connection to Maunakea. There's an ecological aspect, that human beings have kinship relationship to ʻaina, or the natural environment, the land, and that you have to take care of that, and there's a feeling that astronomy has not done a good job of that. Then there's the political history of the Hawaiian kingdom illegally overthrown by the U.S. government in 1893, and the hurt that persists to today, from the culture and the language being repressed by outsiders, and Hawaiians being excluded from systems of power. I believe that the decision to build TMT on Maunakea against objections from the Hawaiian community felt like another example of post-colonial injustice. This point of view was in stark contrast to the positive hope of TMT advancing science and bringing knowledge to humanity as well as educational and economic benefit.
All these perspectives could be and were held even within single individuals. And so yes, there was a broad spectrum of strongly held opinions among many people in Hawai'i and within the Hawaiian community.
ZIERLER: In all of these discussions, talking about the range of perspectives, at the risk of generalizing, are there perspectives that break along generational lines? Are you more likely to hear a certain opinion from, say, a college-age student versus middle age or grandparents? Or is it all sort of mixed up?
MATSUDA: I think it's mixed up, but there are some trends, and I think there are some reasons—or I can come up with some theories about—and others have said this; these are not my ideas. Let me just talk about history a little bit. In the sixties and seventies, there was sort of the beginning of a resurgence of Hawaiian culture and understanding of the history and the overthrow – this period is often referred to as the Hawaiian Renaissance. Many native Hawaiians and others became very educated about history and culture. This led to the Hawaiian charter school movement and Native Hawaiian programs in language, culture, education, law, medicine and other fields at the University level, and students were immersed in the language, culture, and history. Products of this educational system have become some of the biggest voices about resistance to TMT and cultural interpretation about the importance and meaning of Maunakea. Whereas some in the older generation had been admonished to not speak the language or practice the culture. That's a very broad generalization, and I think where we are today is that, everyone including non-Hawaiians have learned more about the history, culture and language, for which I'm personally deeply grateful for.
ZIERLER: The two big question marks we've covered so far are the master lease in 2033 and of course whether or not the TMT gets built on Maunakea. Do you see those as connected? Does whether TMT gets built affect the master lease? Does the prospect for the master lease affect the prospects of the TMT getting built?
MATSUDA: Oh, yes. The process that we're going through with the Authority is to determine a new management plan for Maunakea for all human uses. There's hunting that occurs on Maunakea. There's visitation and tourism. There's people who want to go hiking, people who want to do cultural practice, of course. All these uses. And astronomy. This plan has to determine what is the right balance that protects Maunakea—because that's the one thing everyone cares about, this wonderful pristine site. The job of the Authority is to come up with a vision and plan that informs the leases and conduct of everyone on Maunakea. There is no decision from the authority yet about what the limitations to astronomy development will be in the future plan, but I'll note that the University of Hawai'i had already planned to reduce the number of telescopes from 13 to 9 in their master plan – a plan that will get replaced by the authority's plan. As there are fewer and fewer telescopes, then the cost share per telescope to contribute to managing the site is going to go up. All of that has to be weighed out in the next five years. Not just TMT but all the observatories will have to see the new plan—that's all up in the air right now.
ZIERLER: It's up in the air, but from what I'm hearing, you feel pretty good about the trajectory.
MATSUDA: I do. There's going to be a lot of change. I think that's how life is - conditions change and we have to adapt. This adaptation is going to be painful for astronomy, because we've gotten used to how things have been. But I think in the end, we'll end up with a balance that is more acceptable to everyone, and in the process we will create a more equitable system to carry us into the future. That is my sincere hope and I'll do my best to contribute.
ZIERLER: With me coming from a Caltech perspective looking for the historic relationship between Caltech and Keck, do you feel Caltech on a day to day? Is that part of your world?
MATSUDA: Yes, of course. As interim director on a day to day basis I think about Caltech. Because we would not exist were it not for the partnership of Caltech and the University of California. We're here to do this mission because of the vision of those two organizations. So, as interim director, certainly. Are we providing value to the partners? Are we communicating and collaborating? Are we being good stewards of the funds? Are we serving the needs of the scientific community and Caltech and the University of California.
The other thing I would say is there's an element of the culture of Keck that I attribute to a genealogical tie to Caltech and JPL. Our first project manager, when I came 30 years ago, was Jerry Smith, who came from JPL. He had a certain style of management, and this sort of technical expertise and confidence that we can do really hard things and solve really hard problems, that I trace back, in part, to Caltech and JPL, and that still permeates the organization today. We're hard-driving. We're never satisfied. We are always trying to improve the Observatory. People work very hard. We're very focused and analytical about technical challenges. Some of this definitely comes from Caltech and JPL.
ZIERLER: Let's establish some personal history. Growing up in Hawai'i, how did you get to the University of Washington? What was that opportunity?
MATSUDA: I grew up in Hawai'i, attended Punahou School through high school. I wanted to experience something outside of Hawai'i for college, and that was really encouraged at Punahou at the time. I didn't know what I was looking for. I was 17 years old. I didn't know what I wanted to major in. My senior class dean suggested that I apply to a few schools, and my dad took me out on a trip to go visit some of these schools. The dean, it turns out, was an alum of the University of Washington, which is why it was on the list. But I don't remember him saying, "You've got to go to UDub". But, I liked the campus, so, I ended up there. Once I got there and started taking classes, I got interested in electrical engineering, and that's what I ended up majoring in.
ZIERLER: You must have liked Seattle, to stay there for Boeing.
MATSUDA: I loved Seattle. It was a lot different than Hawaiʻi, right? Different climate than growing up, rainy [laughs] and short days in the winters. But I liked the change. Honestly, on a personal level, at the time I was in college, my dad was also in a prominent position in Hawai'i, so it was good to be out of the spotlight of being recognized as my dad's son, in Hawai'i.
ZIERLER: What's your dad's name? What was his work?
MATSUDA: Fujio Matsuda. He was the president of the University of Hawai'i at the time I went off to college at the University of Washington.
ZIERLER: What's his field? What's his academic background?
MATSUDA: Civil engineering. He got his PhD from MIT. He went to college as a result of the GI Bill. He fought in the US Army in World War II, in Europe, attended Rose-Hulman Institute—or Rose Polytechnic at the time—in Indiana, and then went to grad school at MIT. Then he came home to Hawai'i, was teaching at UH, and had a civil engineering firm with some friends of his, when the governor appointed him to be the director of transportation for the state. He was the director at a time when the airports and the harbors and the highways were expanding, and he learned administration of big organizations. Then he returned to the University of Hawai'i and served as president from 1974 to 1984 – the first Asian American president of a large research university in the US. I graduated high school in 1981 [laughs]. I guess the independent side of me didn't want to always be recognized as, "There's Fujio's son—causing trouble," or whatever. [laughs]
ZIERLER: I have to ask, your dad serving in the American military during World War II, did he speak about his experiences? Was he aware of the Japanese internment program during the War?
MATSUDA: He was definitely aware of it. He graduated high school I believe in 1942 and then enrolled at the University of Hawai'i in engineering. But then the War broke out, he enlisted, and deployed with the 442nd, a highly decorated Japanese American unit in the Army. Because he had aptitude in math, he was selected to attend what is now Auburn University, to become an Army engineer. But the war in Europe heated up, and they said, "We don't need engineers, we need soldiers," so he got sent to Europe. His experience of the War was really atypical, because he ended up in an all-white unit, not with other Japanese American soldiers, in a field artillery unit. Because he knew how to use the slide rule, he could do the trig calculations to aim artillery. And so, his war buddies were white men from Louisiana, Boston, Indiana and places like that. Which is part of the reason he went to Indiana for college after the War.
In Hawai'i, there are about 1,500 Japanese that were interned I've heard, so it wasn't like the West Coast areas, where basically everyone of Japanese descent was incarcerated. So, I think he may have known a few people, but internment wasn't as widespread. On the other hand, my wife's family, she's Japanese American who grew up in Seattle; her mom, dad, grandparents, aunties and uncles were all incarcerated.
ZIERLER: Did your dad ever talk about any emotional conflicts he might have felt? On the one hand patriotically serving in the Army, but then also serving in a government that was jailing his fellow Japanese Americans?
MATSUDA: He never talked about that. He did talk about how he really felt very patriotic about the United States, and he believed strongly in the Constitution. He passed away in 2020. He would always bring up the Constitution. So he never talked about what you were asking. He always talked about how to be a good American.
ZIERLER: Back to Boeing, what was some of your key work at Boeing? What did you do there?
MATSUDA: I started as a design engineer in avionics. At the time, Boeing was designing a prototype airplane they called the 7J7. The "J" was because for the first time they were doing collaboration with Japan on building the plane. That was at the era when they began designing and building with multiple partners then put all the parts together. I worked on one of the flight control computers for that concept, but it never became a real airplane. Then I moved into some work around upgrades to flight control systems for the 747 and 767. Then they launched the design of the 777 airplane, and I got to be the lead on a team designing part of the cabin control system. That was my first experience being in a lead position. I had a small team of engineers and technicians. I was at Boeing for eight years, and the jump over to Keck happened right when they were doing the final flight testing of the 777 airplane.
ZIERLER: You were working exclusively in a civilian context? You weren't doing military work for Boeing?
MATSUDA: That's correct. Commercial aircraft.
ZIERLER: The budget cuts that were felt throughout aerospace at the end of the Cold War in 1991, did that register with you? Did you feel that on the civilian side at Boeing?
MATSUDA: Not really, because it was really commercially driven. There would be ups and downs based on when new airplanes would get introduced. It was indirect. Economic downturns would reduce the number of orders of planes, and Boeing would adjust—they'd have layoffs to handle the economics—but it wasn't such a direct connection.
ZIERLER: What was the opportunity that brought you back to Hawai'i, that got you started at Keck in 1993?
MATSUDA: My brother-in-law sent me an ad, as almost like a joke [laughs], a classified ad with him saying, "Hey, look what I found. You should come back to Hawai'i." No email back then, right? He mailed me this newspaper clipping. When I was ten years old and my dad was finishing up at the Department of Transportation, before he went to the University, we came to Hawai'i Island, and I got to visit Maunakea and see the outside of one of the telescopes. I remember thinking, "I wonder what's in there. That's really interesting looking, cool looking." I think maybe that was stuck in the back of my mind all those years [laughs], so when he sent me that ad, I decided, "I'm going to look into this!" I looked up Keck Observatory, did a little bit of research, and said to myself, "Oh my gosh. This thing is so cool. They're doing the segmented mirror design. And it looks like they proved it out." I started finding National Geographic articles about it and all that. I applied, and didn't hear back, and so I said, "Oh, okay, I guess airline design engineers don't make good telescope engineers,"— my wife Leslie and I decided to start a family. She got pregnant. And then they called me! [laughs]
ZIERLER: [laughs] Of course. [laughs]
MATSUDA: I came out for the interview, was blown away by seeing the Telescope. The people were great. My sister was already living here on the Big Island. One of my favorite things to do is surf, and I still surf to this day. My sister and her husband took me to Waipio Valley at sunrise to go surfing the day after my interview, and it was a [laughs] transformational experience. I don't know if you've been down there, but it's really beautiful. The Sun was coming up out of the east, so the Valley was lit up. The waves were really nice. I had this amazing experience, seeing this amazing telescope, and then I got to go to this beautiful place. But my wife [laughs] was—-not excited by my enthusiasm at first, because she was 4 months pregnant and not enthused about moving so far away from her parents. But, she said, "Let's give it a try." She deserves the credit for me being here.
ZIERLER: What was your initial work coming to Keck?
MATSUDA: [laughs] I'll tell you a funny story. My initial work on the summit was reconfiguring the Keck I Telescope cable wrap. The cables were rubbing against each other and causing problems, so they had pulled all the telescope control cables and ran them down the hallway, and our job was to rearrange the cables in a more organized fashion. Very [laughs] intense work, at14,000 feet. Of course, I was trying to make a good impression, and after a couple of hours, I thought I was going to die, because I had a terrible headache, nausea, altitude sicknesss [laughs]. I was like, "Oh my god, what have I done? I pulled my wife away from her family. I left a promising career at Boeing. And I don't know if I can handle the altitude!" I went and sat in the lunch room, with a pounding headache, didn't know what was going on—and I thought, "What a mistake I've made." But those guys took care of me, and they said, "Just keep coming up. Each time it will get better." I guess I got used to it – I'm still here!
ZIERLER: Your electrical engineering background at Boeing—what was relevant, what could you bring with you, and what did you have to learn on the fly?
MATSUDA: Keck II was being constructed when I joined Keck, and the telescope control system needed to be built. Basically a close copy of Keck I. So, I was working with subcontractors in California to build the electronics cabinets, put the test plans together, oversee getting it all fabricated, installed, and integrated. That was my job. At Boeing I was a design engineer basically focused at the circuit board level of building these control systems. At Keck, it was much broader -- build the whole system with all the cabling and the mechanisms and understanding the moving parts. It wasn't strictly electronics anymore; I needed to understand the mechanical aspects, optical aspects, and software aspects. I felt, in the beginning, like a fish out of water. I had to learn a lot from the team here. But it was an awesome team of folks to work with, and they were very good at teaching, and very patient. People like Mark Sirota, my boss at the time, Kevin Ho, John Maute, Tim Williams, Sarah Anderson and many others. That was exciting. Eventually Keck II got built, and checked out, and it was really helpful that we had built Keck I. Whenever something didn't work on Keck II, we could just walk over to Keck I and take a look and see, why is it not working on Keck II? That was fun.
ZIERLER: What was construction like, getting all of these materials up the mountain?
MATSUDA: By the time I came in, many of the big pieces like the dome structure and the telescope had already been put in, so I didn't get to experience very much of that. But I remember the first time we turned on the Keck II Telescope, put it up on oil, meaning floating the telescope on its bearings and released the brakes, and we had to balance the telescope in the elevation axis, right? So you've got this telescope tube that weighs tens of tons. And it has to sit almost in perfect balance, because if it's not, you release the brakes, and it—ffshoo!—goes like that. So we had to hook up the two dome cranes on both ends of the telescope tube and put dynamometers to weigh how much force there would be when we released the brakes, and then add weights to get it to be close to balanced, before we turned on the motors. Because otherwise, the telescope motors would over-current and the brakes wouldn't be able to hold it. That was a pretty [laughs] dicey and interesting process. I remember that as we got it closer to being balanced, there was a summit lead by the name of Bob Moskitis, aka Maunakea Bob, who was a bigger guy, and we had figured out ratio of motor current to weight imbalance at the top end of the telescope. At one point we said, "We need about one Bob on the top end," [laughs] so Bob strapped himself into the top end—
MATSUDA: —and we released the brakes, and we were like, "Perfect." We got the balance perfect. [laughs]
ZIERLER: From that initial job, what did you do next? What was your next move up?
MATSUDA: We had implemented a control system upgrade in Keck II when we built it, so we had to go back to Keck I to upgrade it. It's called the EPICS control system. Then the thing after that was upgrading the Long Wave Spectrograph with a new detector, so I got to work on instrumentation for the first time. I worked on the electronics part of upgrading LWS, which involved new detector electronics and other things, and mechanisms, and characterization of the detector with Barbara Jones, the PI, and Randy Campbell the instrument specialist, and then the commissioning of it. Most of the work was done down here in Waimea. Then I got to work on the commissioning of a couple of other instruments, NIRSPEC and NIRC2, after that, again mostly on the electronics side. This work involved traveling over to UCLA and Caltech to work with instrumentalists there. After that, I made the shift into more of technical management, so not so much working on things but managing teams.
ZIERLER: When did that happen, roughly? What year would that have been?
MATSUDA: Around 2000, I think, my boss and the person that hired me, Mark Sirota, who ended up going off and working in industry for a while, at Corning, and then in New Mexico at the Interferometer there, and then ended up back in TMT as the head of control systems—anyway, he moved on, and I got promoted to be the electronics group department manager. That was the first time I became a department manager level and became part of the observatory's senior management team.
ZIERLER: How big a department is that? How many people were you managing?
MATSUDA: I think it would have been around 20. We had technicians and engineers. Maybe less? Maybe somewhere between 15 and 20, at the time.
ZIERLER: What aspects of either this job or your previous work was there opportunity to interface either directly with the astronomers, or to provide the engineering capabilities to meet the science objectives? I wonder if you could talk about that interplay.
MATSUDA: We've always had staff astronomers that were the main interface to astronomers, but we take a lot of pride in the discoveries that happen, so we would get to meet some of the astronomers that were using the Telescope. But the place where I got to meet and work with more astronomers was on the instrument program during instrument development. I got to know people like Ian McLean from UCLA. And, Keith Matthews from Caltech, to name a couple. There were many more. Brilliant people. When I became the electronics engineering manager it was more from almost a customer service point of view. We would see the night log tickets that would say, "This system or that system is not working and it's affecting the science in this way or that way." For instance, "We can't focus the telescope," or "The pointing is bad," or whatever. We didn't have as much direct interface with astronomers for those things. Our support astronomer staff would interface with them. But they would tell us, "Hey, we've got to work on improving the pointing," or "We've got to work on this unreliability," with whatever. We could get the calls in the middle of the night that something is broken and can we fix it? I remember having the drawings of the Telescope and sometimes the instrumentation on my nightstand, and the phone would ring at two in the morning, and you just get this jolt of adrenaline, because you know every minute on sky counts. So, you just jump up and [laughs] "Who is this? And what's wrong with the Telescope?" And you try to find out what's wrong and provide help as quickly as possible. In the beginning, that was a regular occurrence until the systems matured.
ZIERLER: The question of taking pride in the discovery, do you have a sense in real time when somebody at Keck is doing something on the Telescope that's really important for astronomy, for astrophysics? Do you have that sense even before the paper comes out that something really exciting is afoot?
MATSUDA: Nowadays, from the positions I sit in, not so much. It's more when we know the press release is coming out. Our chief scientist, John O'Meara, knows a lot more about what is coming. He's a lot more in contact with the folks using the Telescope every night. But for me, not so much. I'm sure the support astronomers have an inkling because they're supporting the folks doing the work, and if they see the big aha moment, they know something good must be happening.
ZIERLER: Of those discoveries, what stands out in your memory? What's so special to you that you contributed to some major discovery that happened at Keck?
MATSUDA: Nothing can beat the Nobel Prizes, the 2011 accelerating expansion of the universe, then the 2020 prize with Andrea Ghez and the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Andrea has been so involved with the Observatory, in addition to observing, she served on our science steering committee and other efforts, so a lot of the people at the Observatory know her personally. That's really cool, when you have a personal relationship, and then you also have these amazing results. I know that there's a lot of collaborators there—it's not just Andrea—but the fact that we all had something to do with that. That was a study that occurred over many, many years, to track the stars' motions around the supermassive black hole. That team had been coming out for more than two decades to get that result, so that perseverance, and—yeah, that was cool.
ZIERLER: When did you start to get into external relations and community affairs? Did you see that as a really interesting zigzag in the career trajectory of an electrical engineer?
MATSUDA: This was a period of immense personal growth. It was shortly after 2014 TMT groundbreaking ceremony that got interrupted by protestors. I was on the summit that day. In 2014, I was the head of operations at Keck. We knew the ceremony was scheduled to happen, but we were there to get our work done. I remember walking out to the front parking lot at Keck and looking down at the intersection down there in Submillimeter Valley and seeing all the commotion that was going on, and then running back and watching the livestream happening on the internet, and going back and forth. It was chaotic, because the TMT partners, many VIPs, a whole train of vehicles, were trying to get to the site, including the Hawai'i county mayor and other dignitaries, and the protestors blocked them from getting there. Then people tried to walk to the site. The groundbreaking ceremony eventually got stopped by activists in a very intense and emotional exchange. I had a gut feeling that this was the beginning of something that we've never seen before, a big shift. I went to Hilton Lewis, the director and my boss some time later—and I said, "Hey, as much as we would like this whole controversy thing to go away, I really don't think it's going to go away." The "'A'ole TMT" or "No to TMT" movement exploded on social media. I said, "This feels really different, and I think we need to engage but I don't know what that means." I had no training in community relations or government relations or whatever, and we had no government relations or community relations function at the Observatory other than educational outreach and donor relations.
ZIERLER: Which is kind of probably part of the issue.
MATSUDA: Part of the issue. I told him, "I want to be involved in it." Because I felt a sense of responsibility, both having been at the Observatory—at that time would have been 20-plus years—and as a third generation kamaʻāina, or Hawai'i-born person, And so I asked to be involved, not knowing what that would mean at the time.
ZIERLER: What is the timing with the announcement of TMT? Where does that fit in, on the timeline?
MATSUDA: TMT—2014 was when they did the groundbreaking ceremony. Then in 2015 they tried to commence construction, and there were blockades up at Hale Pohaku and the road above, and protestors were arrested. Then the governor essentially said, "Time out. We need to take a look at this." My involvement ramped up from then. The situation moved into contested case proceedings and lawsuits in the courts. It wasn't until 2019 that legal challenges were resolved, and the governor announced TMT had cleared the hurdles and had the right to proceed. That is when then the really big demonstrations happened at the base of the Maunakea Access Road. The kia'i mauna, or protectors of Maunakea, were encamped there for nine months. I knew quite a few of the people there from connections in the community. At that point I was spending the majority of my time on external relations.
ZIERLER: Do you think that the timing of the decision or the language of the decision, was it tone deaf? Did that sort of encourage the protests either to start at all or become bigger than they were?
MATSUDA: Probably in hindsight—yeah, maybe it could have been done a little bit better, but I think this was more of a commentary on the system, that the Native Hawaiian community that was opposed just did not feel that their concerns were being heard. You could have announced it in a different way, but I don't think it would have made that big a difference in the end.
ZIERLER: Were you surprised, or had you already been engaged enough with the community that you kind of saw this coming?
MATSUDA: Saw it coming. Maybe not at the magnitude that it ended up being, where there were sometimes thousands of people—that was pretty surprising—but, in my gut, I knew that this was not going to go smooth.
ZIERLER: Either as a witness or just being involved, the question of simply clearing the protesters from the land, I wonder if you can narrate why that's such an untenable position, why that never happened.
MATSUDA: The governor ordered a very large law enforcement presence when the road got blocked. And just more and more people came. People were coming in this solidarity for native Hawaiian rights and pride in the culture. I think at some point he realized the magnitude of what would have to be done—whoa, we just had a little earthquake here—
MATSUDA: [laughs] —yeah, weird—to clear the road would have been—it would have been really terrible.
ZIERLER: Just from a moral perspective? From a politics and optics perspective? All of the above?
MATSUDA: All of the above. I think if it were a small number of people who were on the a radical fringe, that would be a totally different thing, but with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people there, I think number one, arresting that many people would be logistically impossible; number two, it would tear the community into shreds. Because we're a small community; we're all connected in some way. The arrests of the 38 elders, the kupuna, was huge, and it went international. Imagine if hundreds of people were removed. Personally, I would have felt really terrible if that happened, and I think most people in astronomy who live here and work up there would feel that way. It was difficult to see the 38 kupuna arrested.
ZIERLER: When COVID hit, a question we all had to deal with, what did that mean for Keck? What were the operations that were suspended? What were the operations that needed to happen on site?
MATSUDA: I want to talk about COVID from two aspects. One was what it did on the Mauna, which is, it created this big time-out. Because the government's attention all went to focus on the pandemic, and then there was this public health concern of the people still camping out on the road up there. And so, with the mayor's assurance at the time and the TMT project's assurance that no construction would begin, nearly all the people who were up there departed and went home. And that actually created the time-out that was needed for things to cool down enough for that Maunakea working group to get established. So, without the pandemic, I don't know if we would be where we are today. Without that time-out, the temperature wouldn't have gone down enough to create a new opportunity for a reset.
Then as far as the organization here, we went through the same thing that everyone else went through. It was really hard. We limited the number of people that could drive in the vehicles to go up to the summit. Most of the entire headquarters people were instructed to work from home, but we still tried to operate, for the most part, and had to scale down to skeleton crews. Many projects came to a stop. Maintenance fell behind. We didn't know what was happening with the virus, we didn't know what the effects could be, or how you get it, and no vaccine at the time. We were hugely impacted. We had a committee that figured out our operating regime, and eventually began bringing functions back to work and increasing the number of people that could work on the summit. It was a really difficult time. Communication was difficult. We experienced a lot of turnover over the three years of the pandemic. That put us in a really deep hole, and those who remained had to pick up the work of those who departed. There was still a lot of pressure on certain employees, like parents of young kids who weren't able to go to school, for example. Some people reevaluated their lives and decided to move on from Keck. Some had to move back to the continental U.S. to take care of parents. It was tough, but we have been able to bounce back well. Looking back it is incredible how our team stuck together and got through this together.
ZIERLER: Today feels pretty much back to normal now?
MATSUDA: We implemented a hybrid work policy where some folks to work from home part of the time. And we have a handful of employees who work fully remotely. We, like other organizations, are trying to figure out how to make all of that work. And, due to the turnover and new people whose onboarding wasn't ideal, we have to rebuild our culture a bit. At the same time these new folks have brought new energy. In summary though, much more back to normal than it was, of course. Yes.
ZIERLER: Bringing the story right up to the present, in this interim role you find yourself in, I wonder if you can reflect on the legacy of Hilton Lewis, what he meant for your career, and what he meant for Keck?
MATSUDA: Hilton was my boss and mentor for many years. Over the last several years we talked a lot about Maunakea, and one thing I'd like to highlight is how courageous he was in making decisions to support principles that advocated for Native Hawaiian representation in decision-making for Maunakea. Advocating for system change is hard and it changes the power balance of things. But I believe that he saw and felt uncertain about the future, and that we had to take some really big risks—to engage with the Hawaiian community and to support the formation of the new Authority. And he had to work to make the space for me to work on that, and transition away from operations, and he fully supported that. He didn't let the uncertainty of the situation prevent him from making big, hard decisions about the future of Keck. For that, he deserves tons of credit.
MATSUDA: Because of my position on the working group and being named to the Authority, there was considerable skepticism, criticism and resistance. We could have tried to stay out of the limelight, but we didn't. I feel we stepped forward.
ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, if I may, for my last question, looking to the future—I know you already said when a new director is named, you're not sure exactly what that will mean for you. It is obvious, though, you're committed to two things. You're committed to the astronomy and the science, and you're committed to the community relations and having the native peoples of Hawai'i feel part of the process. In whatever role you have at Keck, drawing your own experiences, your family background, how are you going to make that happen? What's that going to look like for you?
MATSUDA: This would be one of the ones that I'll tell you later [laughs]—
ZIERLER: We'll capture it now. We'll see how you do.
MATSUDA: Yes, we'll see what happens. You nailed what I'm passionate about. There's a Hawaiian word called pono—p-o-n-o—and it means many things like balance, justice, equity, just doing the right thing. My passion is for a world in which how we conduct astronomy is pono. How do we go about that? I'm not exactly sure, but I know it depends on developing genuine relationships in the community, assuring Keck is a good community member that works shoulder to shoulder with community members and partners with community organizations to uplift the community. It requires us acknowledging and being accountable for being part of a system that was not sufficiently inclusive of the local community. I feel we are making significant progress with formation of the Authority, developing a totally different community relations approach, and examining ourselves and motivating for change in astronomy organizations. I guess no matter what role I have, for as long as I have a place at Keck, I will keep working on this. How the director selection plays out, we'll find out soon enough!
ZIERLER: That's the big question.
ZIERLER: Well, good luck! Good luck, because Hawai'i needs it, and astronomy needs it, and certainly Keck needs it. Rich, I want to thank you for spending this time with me. It has been a terrific conversation. I really do appreciate it.
MATSUDA: Thank you so much, David.