February 20, 2014
By Jim Moore
NASA has picked Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures to take over operation of Moffett Federal Airfield, a historic property with a landmark airship hangar that is familiar turf for Google executives.
The airfield, four miles from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., has been used in the past by the U.S. Navy as an airship base in the 1930s, and later by NASA, which has operated the airfield for nearly a quarter-century. Google was one of two bidders responding to a request for proposals, and presented an offer that will include renovation of Hangar One, a Silicon Valley landmark because of its massive size (1,100 feet long) and highway visibility. Hangar One was built to house the USS Akron and USS Macon airships in the 1930s.
The massive hangar is now a skeleton, its skin removed to mitigate contamination caused by the release of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the deteriorating material. The steel frame was covered in epoxy, but NASA has not had funding available to re-skin the hangar, an improvement that will be part of the Google deal.
"We are delighted to move ahead in the selection process and we look forward to working with both GSA and NASA to preserve the heritage of Moffett Federal Airfield," Google said in a statement.
Financial terms of the deal are being worked out between Google, NASA, and the GSA.
The Associated Press reported that the decision to award the lease to Planetary Ventures came two months after a report by NASA’s inspector general raised questions about fuel discounts given to Google executives, who have been leasing hangar space at Moffett for $1.4 million per year since 2007. The report concluded that the discounts, which amount to $5.3 million for flights dating to 2009, were the result of a misunderstanding. Google aircraft were sometimes used to carry NASA experiments, though the discounts were given for non-NASA flights as well, the AP reported.
Google proposed several upgrades and improvements, including restoration of the historic hangars and a golf course upgrade, and will operate the federal field as a public-use facility. It is unclear whether Google executives will continue to use the facility for their own aircraft; the company is negotiating with a contractor to build another aircraft facility at nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport, the AP reported.
NASA officials noted that the deal will eliminate taxpayer expense for maintaining, improving, and operating Moffett Federal Airfield, and Google will comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and environmental requirements.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a news release that the deal “will allow NASA to focus its resources on core missions, while protecting the federal need to use Moffett Field as a continued, limited-use airfield. This decision today represents a tremendously effective partnership between NASA and our sister agency the GSA, and we're grateful for their leadership in this endeavor.”
AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.
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