Mountain View Voice

Opinion - February 14, 2014

New life for Moffett, and Hangar One

The fabled 200-foot tall hangar built for the dirigible USS Macon in the 1930s at Moffett Federal Airfield has once again survived near death and will not rust away, thanks to a deal announced this week between NASA, the General Services Adminstration and Google's Planetary Ventures.

When signed, the long-expected agreement between Mountain View's high-tech giant and NASA will finally assure Hangar One afficionados and the thousands of passersby who have admired its lofty presence from U.S. 101 — with and without its siding intact — that they will not lose the landmark that has reigned over the region for some 80 years.

Even as its next life beckons, an air of mystery shrouds the hangar, where the Google subsidiary will conduct supposedly hush-hush projects involving "research, testing, assembly and development" of emerging technologies related to space, aviation, rovers and robotics, a spokesperson for the GSA said. The considerably smaller Hangars Two and Three on the northeast side of the airfield are also part of the deal, as is operating the airfield and restoring Moffett's golf course.

It is a testament to the remarkable combination of Hangar One's role in naval history and the size and quality of its construction which has kept the effort to restore the magnificent building alive over the years despite huge roadblocks, some coming from its original owners, the U.S. Navy. It was the Navy's refusal to reskin the giant hangar (with a footprint of about 8 acres or 350,000 square feet) after stripping away its siding and leaving only a rust-prone metal skeleton that brought the structure to its present state. Only after NASA failed to find a way to save the landmark hangar did the GSA join forces with the space agency to request proposals that packaged restoration of Hangar One with operation of the runways and use of the smaller hangars. That is when Google stepped up and agreed to take charge of the airfield.

Now Google appears to be ready to invest whatever it takes to recover the hangar, a task that some estimate could cost up to $40 million. According to the GSA spokeswoman, the company also agreed to build a 90,000 square-foot building on the airfield and make the space available for a public benefit use, such as an educational, museum or incubator use, at no cost to the operator of that facility.

The agreement will leave behind all the travails of the hangar's earlier life, when toxic lead, asbestos and PCBs were found in the frame's paint and siding. A temporary plastic coating was applied, followed by numerous legal battles over what entity was responsible for removing and replacing the toxic siding. The Navy finally agreed to remove the skin but refused to restore the hangar, leaving the structure we see today.

Google's willingness to invest heavily in Moffett Field is not a surprise. The company's first sizeable offices were in the city's North Bayshore area, just across Stevens Creek from Moffett, and over the years it has been involved in numerous joint projects with NASA. The firm leased hangar space for its fleet of business jets and purchased fuel from NASA (albeit at an improper discount that is now being recalculated). In return, Google jets performed experiments for the space agency for a number of years.

Recently, Planetary Ventures has partnered with NASA to organize its huge quantities of data. And now Google plans to build a 1.1 million-square- foot campus for Planetary Ventures on Moffett, near the Stevens Creek border with Mountain View.

With Google at the helm, the public has been assured that Moffett Field will not open up to outside air traffic, as had been feared. More than likely the changes at Moffett will take place inside Hangar One, where Google plans to hatch new technology. It is a perfect location for this venture — what better place is there to build big dreams than Hangar One?

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