Congresswoman Anna Eshoo is among those wondering why NASA headquarters is not responding to a proposal from Google's founders that would not only save the biggest historic landmark in the South Bay, it would save NASA $32.8 million.
While Google's leaders are willing to do what many have wished for years, for two months NASA Headquarters has not responded to the Google founders, or to Congresswoman Eshoo, who has sent NASA administrator Charles Bolden three letters about the proposal since Oct. 26.
"I am extraordinarily disappointed that administrator Bolden has not gotten back to me as a legislative courtesy," Eshoo said, recalling NASA headquarters' promise to work towards saving the hangar a year ago. "This issue is not new to him. It seems to me that the agency should be jumping up and down and embracing the proposal. It takes them completely off the hook."
"I think this is a the equivalent of a great gift falling out of heaven right in our laps." Eshoo said. "There is not any other option on the table today to preserve Hangar One."
The proposal to restore and lease the iconic 200-foot-tall structure was publicly announced at Thursday Dec. 8 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.
NASA headquarters finally responded to the proposal on Wednesday (Dec. 14) in an email to the Voice.
"It would be premature to discuss the merits of the proposal until we have had time to thoroughly review the details," said spokesman Michael Cabbage. "It has not yet been completely vetted. We understand the interest and historic nature of the facility and have to weigh that against the reality of constrained resources and use. We are giving all options thoughtful consideration as we prepare our funding proposal for the Fiscal Year 2013 budget."
"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 NASA agreement with H211. "That said, I still believe the federal government should pay for restoration of the hangar."
But even by Eshoo's account, federal money seems unlikely. The White House Office of Management and Budget has taken the financial onus for Hangar One's restoration off the Navy's hands and put it on Hangar One's current owner, NASA. But President Obama's $32 million budget request to restore the hangar for NASA "was not taken up by Congress and fell by the board," Eshoo said. 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 the $12 million 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.
Eshoo agreed that the restoration needs to begin once the siding is completely removed.
"This cannot be massive symbol rising in the heart of Silicon Valley of the incompetence of the federal government," she 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 "things have gotten to the point that NASA headquarters has become uncooperative and the community needs to be heard," Siegel said.
Siegel believes the proposal could be seen as a threat to some in Washington who want to see NASA Ames' Moffett airfield, where Hangar One sits, sold or made surplus 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.
Ambrose said local NASA officials at Ames Research Center support the proposal, strengthening a partnership that Google has with NASA, which Eshoo also vocally supports. Google's "Planetary Ventures" division 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 executives' 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.
While supportive and open to the H211 proposal, at the meeting RAB members expressed concerns 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 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."