"Why doesn't Google pay for it?" has been the sort of comment often made by those frustrated by the years-long struggle to save landmark Hangar One at Moffett Field. But on Thursday it was announced that the principals of Google are willing to do just that.
Potentially saving taxpayers $32.8 million, the proposal to restore and lease the iconic 200-foot-tall structure was publicly announced Thursday night by Ken Ambrose, director of H211 LLC, which runs a fleet of private jets out of Moffett Field for Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and chairman Eric Schmidt.
As its toxic siding is stripped off in a U.S. Navy-led environmental cleanup, Ambrose told a subcommittee of the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board that Google's leaders would pay 100 percent of the cost to restore the hangar and the shell in return for a long-term lease to use it for the Google leaders' eight planes, including two jumbo jets and several Gulfstream jets, which have been based at Moffett since 2007.
"It appears to be the only thing going, to save the hangar," said Lenny Siegel, a longtime leader of the effort to save Hangar One, who in the past has questioned the special agreement with H211. "That said, I still believe the federal government should pay for restoration of the hangar."
The White House's Office of Management and Budget has taken the financial onus for Hagar One's restoration off the Navy's hands and put it on Hangar One's current owner, NASA. But President Obama's $32 million request to restore the hangar for NASA now appears to have little support in Congress, where subcommittees in the House and Senate have removed it from the budget. The proposal was sharply criticized in an Inspector General's report that said "mission critical" NASA projects would be delayed to restore a building with no proposed use.
Ambrose called the current governmental dysfunction that endangers the historic hangar "unfortunate drama."
"I feel a real sense of urgency with the bones exposed," Ambrose said of the stripped frame. Whether or not the $12 million dollars worth of scaffolding inside of the hangar could be reused to restore the hangar "could be the difference" between it being financially feasible or not, he said.
Siegel said he has known about the proposal for several months, but decided to ask Ambrose to pitch the proposal to the public because it's not been a slam-dunk. It has been two months since the proposal was made and despite support from NASA Ames Research Center, where Hangar One is located, there has been no response from NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. "They are in radio silence," Ambrose said.
"Things have gotten to the point that NASA headquarters has become uncooperative and the community needs to be heard," Siegel said.
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who has consistently pushed for Hangar One's restoration, has sent three letters to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in support of the H211 proposal since late October, and has also heard nothing back. She adds that the offer could save Hagar One from demolition, save tax dollars and mentions that the Mayor of Sunnyvale supports the offer as well.
Ambrose said local NASA officials at Ames Research Center have supported the proposal, which would strengthen a partnership that Google has with NASA. Google division "planetary ventures" is working to organize NASA's archives. "At Ames everyone we've talked to says 'that's a great concept,'" Ambrose said.
In a unique agreement that allows use of the federal airfield for personal flights, the Google exec's planes have been stored in Hangar 211 at Moffett since 2007 under a $1.3 million a year lease agreement that allows use of the aircraft for NASA's scientific work. There have been no noise complaints about the planes, Ambrose said.
Siegel speculated that the proposal could be seen as a threat to some in Washington D.C. who want to see NASA Ames' Moffett airfield, where Hangar One sits, sold or surplussed by the federal government. There may also be some concern from the White House about the appearance of doing a favor for President Obama's supporters at Google. RAB co-chair and former Ames administrator Bill Berry said he was concerned that political "pot shots" would be taken at the proposal.
While supportive and open to the H211 proposal, RAB members expressed concerns at the meeting about whether Hangar One could still be shared with public uses. Preservationists seemed less concerned that Google's leaders were interested in working with the community for an environmentally sensitive restoration, later saying in a letter to NASA that "restoration will meet historic preservation standards" under the H211 plan. Ambrose confirmed that Google's leaders aren't interested in painting a large Google sign on the side.
Inside Hangar One, Ambrose also said Google's proposed use is "not incompatible" with other uses that could share one of the world's largest freestanding structures. Other potential uses include the Moffett Field History Museum and the major air and space museum that preservationists (who are also RAB members) have proposed under the Air and Space West Foundation.
In its letter to NASA headquarters, the RAB subcommittee writes, "We believe that our neighbors, residents of the South Bay Area from all political perspectives, will not hesitate to support the H211 offer enthusiastically."