Oct 10, 2014 · 10 minutes

In our age of lightspeed speculation over the intentions of a handful of powerful Silicon Valley executives, you’d think there would be more buzz about the deal in the works between Google and NASA to bestow upon Google the rights to a massive government airport adjacent to NASA’s Ames Research Center and a stone's throw from the Googleplex.

In February it was announced that the federal General Services Administration had selected a bid by Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures to lease the Moffett Airfield and its hangars. After a brief effervescence of Internet reportage the story has gone silent. And now those lease negotiations, originally slated to be finalized July 1, seem to be in limbo.

The deal involves a bewildering array of bureaucracy, politics, and community activism. It remains unknown what Google intends to do with the airfield and adjacent land totaling 1,000 acres in the historic heart of Silicon Valley. The lease agreement carries requirements that Google rehabilitate a vast dirigible hangar to its former steampunk glory, fix up the parcel's 18-hole golf course, and develop a publicly accessible educational facility on site. Any additional plans and the financials of the lease have been kept under wraps.

Will it simply be Google's private airfield? A Silicon Valley hub for the commercial space industry? An expanded footprint for Google's moonshot proclivities? Will we ever know?

Google is remarkably opaque for a public company of its size, and Ames is no slouch at secrecy either.

“Ninety-nine percent of what the taxpayers have funded there, they can’t see,” says Keith Cowing, a former NASA astrobiologist and the man behind NASA Watch, a journalistic effort that keeps a close eye on news about the space agency. The Moffett Field parcel and the Ames campus were purchased by the city of Sunnyvale through citizen donations and sold to the government for $1 in 1931. The Santa Clara County community has remained deeply involved in the fate of the airfield and hangars since, and many are concerned that it is passing into private hands.

As late as June 24th, a representative from Google’s real estate division told me that the talks were on schedule. On October 1, she said “still moving forward.” Neither NASA nor the GSA would comment on the negotiations. As with any decision funneling through the federal government at the moment, the smart money says we'll remain in the dark until after November's midterm elections.

The San Jose Mercury reported a statement from NASA and GSA officials claiming that Planetary Ventures would use the property for “research, testing, assembly and development” of “new technology related to space, aviation and ‘rover/robotics’.” There was also talk about strengthening the partnership between Google and Ames: the two organizations have existing joint projects in quantum computing and supercomputing, as well as a scheme in which Google funds and helps select research projects at Ames under the Space Act.

But the author and informal Silicon Valley historian Steve Blank told me this past summer that he found this to be “a PR optical illusion.”

“This lease is a positive for Google and a sad commentary for NASA and the federal government,” Blank said, “Google has not done this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’ve gotten a competitive advantage. God bless ‘em. And this is just a fig leaf for the government to preserve things that are no longer important.”

The problem for NASA and the government is that they have had little use for the airfield since Ames’ flight operations were shifted to Dryden Flight Research Center in southern California.

And it gets more complicated. Moffett Field is also a Superfund Site in need of extensive remediation, and this places severe limits on any potential development. The cleanup is still the responsibility of the Navy –which operated Moffett until 1994 – with EPA oversight.

So what does Google have to gain by buying up a little-used airfield located on an environmental disaster zone?

A dubious real estate investment

There has been robust opposition among Mountain View and Sunnyvale residents and elected officials to civilian or commercial air operations at Moffett for quite some time. Public opposition has thwarted other development plans, such as former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed World Expo and Six Flags campus solution.

The main Hangar needs to be restored – its protective skin was stripped due to toxicity in 2008. There is a stalled UC/CSU joint contract to develop an academic research facility – a scheme to which Google has been an on-again, off-again partner. Moffett is a National Historic District and any lessee is required to develop a long-promised public educational facility at the site.

Today the airfield is used by the 129th Rescue Wing of the California Air National Guard, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department, Air Force One, and cargo planes shipping gear produced at Lockheed Martin’s adjacent Sunnyvale production facility. It also hosts a FEMA disaster management facility.

Oh, and it just so happens that Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have housed their private planes in a hangar at Moffett and paid for runway access since 2007.

Chris Kemp was director of strategic business development at Ames in 2007 and was party to the initial negotiations between Ames and H211, a subsidiary company that Kemp says was “just Larry, Sergey and Eric at the time.” As part of the deal, the executives allowed NASA to share space on their planes for scientific research.

Kemp says that the H211 deal was a bright spot in Ames’ airfield budget.

“That deal offset a huge amount of the airfield’s cost. I’d say it made up for about 25 percent of the costs while only accounting for 2 percent of the flights,” Kemp said. “In addition, they fixed up Hangar 211, at no cost to taxpayers.”

Before the lease was ever put up for bid, H211 had offered to take on responsibility for restoring Hangar One.

Planetary Ventures also has the rights to another 42 acre parcel leased from Ames, where Google intends to build a new office park, but those plans have also run into a logjam and work has been halted.

Due in part to a flap in the Senate last year, in which Sen. Chuck Grassley claimed Google was getting a sweetheart deal on jet fuel at Moffett courtesy of taxpayers, the H211 lease ended on July 1 of this year and was not renewed. The planes were to be transferred to new hangars at San Jose Mineta Airport that have yet to be completed.

The Grassley kerfluffle was well-timed. The GSA, which manages surplus government property, had just issued a Request for Proposals for a lease to take on the entirety of the airfield, and those in the know figured Google to be the obvious lessee.

“Google has a longstanding working relationship with NASA Ames, but last summer there was a lot of hoo-haw about favoritism and it became unclear if Google would make a bid,” said Sean Casey of the Silicon Valley Space Center.

Casey, a former NASA Ames scientist, put together a bid of his own, which would ultimately be the only one other than Google’s to receive consideration.

The SVSC bid was supported by a major Bay Area real estate developer, the SETI Institute, Singularity University, and commercial aircraft companies. They proposed to spend a total of approximately $240 million in development costs to convert Hangar One into usable workspace, build a new 200,000 square foot building, and restore Hangars 2 and 3.

Those tenants would have included a number of aerospace startup companies that wanted access to the airfield, as well as providers of traditional jet services. Casey says that SVSC received interest from the likes of suborbital vehicle providers XCOR and a company called TerraFugia which wanted to create a showroom for its flying cars. He says Elon Musk was also a party to the bid. “They were waiting to see.”

Casey says the RFP procedure was unorthodox by NASA standards. The terms for the lease were vague and the details of the environmental remediation conditions were almost entirely absent. The specifics were to be decided over six months of closed-door negotiations after a bid had been selected.

“Usually you would do these types of negotiations earlier, with a bigger group and come up with the best and final offer that way. Doing it this way makes it move fast but puts the government at a negotiating disadvantage. What’s the fallback?”

That question looms ever larger as the timeline for a deal gets pushed back.

Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, has been involved with the Moffett site since the 80’s. He believes that the deal is being held up in Washington, D.C., and that Ames and Google are ready to sign a deal and get to work.

Siegel is concerned that Google intends to expand its office park footprint at the site without building additional housing, compounding traffic issues in Mountain View. He vows to invoke a new, comprehensive Environmental Impact Study if the lease deal creates new environmental impacts, including traffic.

As Sean Casey said of Planetary Ventures winning bid: “The good news is, you won. The bad news is, you won.”

These complications explain why Google hasn’t been trumpeting its new airport acquisition. Unless it has gotten cold feet, one must assume that the company still sees an upside in the site that makes it worth all the hassle.

The parcel includes a waterfront stretch previously used by the Navy to dock barges, a former servicemen’s golf course, and three enormous aircraft hangars. The largest of the hangars is a modernist treasure, with the square footage of six football fields and a legacy stretching back to the birth of a doomed American zeppelin program at the height of the Great Depression. It was once the largest free-standing building on Earth and has long been a tragi-gallant Silicon Valley landmark, visible from nearby Highway 101 and on approaches to SFO.

Since early 2013, the Mountain View moonshotter has made significant acquisitions in robotics (eight companies including Boston Dynamics), satellites (Skybox), artificial intelligence (DNNresearch, DeepMind Technologies), drones (Titan Aerospace) and connected “things” (Nest, Dropcam). On top of that it has developed connectivity balloons, cloud-enabled contact lenses, and vehicle automation through its clandestine GoogleX labs. This summer, Google announced its intention to launch $1 billion worth of connectivity satellites into orbit.

It also bears mention that in 2012, Schmidt and Larry Page both invested personally in Planetary Resources, a company which intends to mine asteroids for precious metals.

That company was founded by Peter Diamandis, who is also co-founder (along with the futurist Ray Kurzweil) of Singularity University, an educational organization that hopes to apply “exponentially advancing technologies” to “overcome humanity’s grand challenges.” Singularity University is also headquartered at Moffett Field.

There’s little indication yet of a master plan behind Google’s flurry of fantastical acquisitions, or how or whether the company intends to use its new airport and vast hangar space to support it. But anyone who’s ever dabbled in science fiction can pretty well imagine how a solidified relationship between Google and NASA around robots, artificial intelligence, and space exploration might play out.

Another clue is that the toxic groundwater of the San Francisco Peninsula is a legacy of the region’s former military operations, but also of Silicon Valley’s namesake semiconductor manufacturing. (Both the military and microchip factories have long since relocated.)

For that reason, Google’s bid to take on Moffett Field can be seen as a symbolic atonement for the pollution and a goodwill gesture to the government by a company that increasingly values the favorable treatment that such favors can buy. It could also be seen as a frightening, tightening of the bond between a vast information technology company with cosmic ambitions and a proud but limping government agency long on expertise but short of cash.

Despite the rich extraterrestrial overtones, this is essentially the story of a can-do Silicon Valley corporation that threw itself willingly into the gears of government bureaucracy and has yet to emerge with the signed piece of paper it sought. Google has gone a long way in recent years to secure government influence and preference. It currently has the second most expensive lobbying corps in the country. One of its vice presidents recently took over the post of the nation’s chief technology officer. As Pando’s Yasha Levine has reported, the revolving door between Google and the government accesses some of the deepest and darkest corners of the nation’s national security sector.

Whatever deal emerges should give a pretty good indication of just what kind of influence all those close ties and money can buy these days -- And just how badly Google’s executives want to be able to park their jets at the GooglePlex.

[photo by fenn]