By Therese Poletti, MarketWatch
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Anyone who has driven through Silicon Valley has seen the strange concrete and steel hangar that looms just off Highway 101 like an above-ground bunker.
Hangar One, on the former Moffett Field military base adjacent to Mountain View, is large in every sense of the word: it is nearly two hundred feet high, longer than the length of three football fields and 308 feet wide. See slideshow of vintage Hangar One images.
To a few it is an eyesore. But to many, the 79-year-old icon represents what helped create Silicon Valley — engineering and technological prowess, important moments in aeronautics and defense history, marred by the vestiges of an environmental mess.
Built to house Navy dirigibles in 1933, Hangar One is endangered again. An ongoing cleanup to remove the hangar’s toxic siding and save it from demolition lacks funding to finish the job properly. In September, the founders of Google Inc.GOOG -0.30% offered to foot the bill of $33 million or more, through a company that runs their fleet of private planes.
But NASA Ames Research, which owns the hangar and the former military base, has let their offer to pay for the cost to “reskin” the hangar dangle like a moored airship, hovering in the wind.
“We are going to have to reconsider our proposal,” said Ken Ambrose, director of operations for H211, which operates the fleet of seven planes owned by Google Chief Executive Larry Page, co-founder Sergey Brin and chairman Eric Schmidt. “I guess trying to be efficient is out of the federal government’s lexicon.”
The caveat of the offer is that the Google founders want to store their fleet in Hangar One, a 10-minute drive from the Googleplex. The fleet includes a Boeing 767-200 jet airliner; the rest are smaller planes. The H211 company is among a small number of companies and federal agencies with permission to use the former naval airfield. Moffett Field is also where Air Force One lands on President Obama’s Bay Area visits.
Air Force One on one of the two airstrips at Moffett Field, with a partially unskinned Hangar One in the background, on Sept. 25, 2011.
A spokesman for NASA Ames said the discussions about the hangar’s future “are being worked at the top levels of government,” perhaps meaning that the White House is involved. “We are optimistic we are heading in the right direction and doing what’s best for the local community,” said spokesman Michael Mewhinney. “We hope to reach a decision later this year.”
Both Ambrose of H211 and locals trying to preserve Hangar One, which is part of an historic district on the National Register and a California civil engineering landmark, said a decision needs to happen soon. The Navy, the hangar’s former owners, has contractors now working on a massive cleanup and removal of the old siding to remove asbestos, PCBs, and other toxic contaminants. The job is about half finished. But the Navy doesn’t have to invest in and install a new skin back on the hangar after the removal is finished, which could expose or damage the steel skeleton.
“The fear is that if the building remains uncovered, it will deteriorate,” said Lenny Siegel, who founded the Save Hangar One committee and is a local environmental advocate. “It’s my belief, but I can’t prove it, that the H211 proposal is snagged in bureaucracy. It’s the larger question of the future of Moffett Field as part of NASA. D.C. thinks of Moffett as a nuisance and not part of their mission. It’s useful, but not a necessity.”
On Monday, NASA’s budget for fiscal 2013 was announced. NASA Ames was spared any cuts. In fact, its budget got a slight increase to $711 million from $690 million in 2012, in part due to the costs to maintain its older buildings. The NASA Ames spokesman declined to comment further on Hangar One and said the decision is being made in Washington.
In addition to potential deterioration if the famous hangar is left uncovered with only a coat of paint, another more ominous problem is at stake. “That is only a temporary measure,” Ambrose said. “As the elements wear on the paint, all those contaminants get into the groundwater again.”
The Navy has also set up a multi-million dollar scaffolding system around the giant structure for the removal project that could be efficiently used again to install new, non-toxic siding on the hangar.
A storied past
Hangar One was initially built to house the USS Macon, one of the largest rigid dirigibles, or airships, that used non-flammable helium to keep afloat. Germany’s successful reconnaissance missions with the rigid airships — called Zeppelins after their inventor — during World War I spurred their adoption in the U.S., England, France and Italy in the 1920s. Dirigibles were valued for their speed and ability to travel long distances without refueling.
The Macon arrived at Hangar One in 1933 and was used for surveillance missions until it crashed into the ocean in a storm off the coast of Point Sur in 1935. All but two of its crew were saved.
Two years later, in 1937, the young airship industry, which by then was exploring Zeppelins for passenger travel, would collapse completely with the disastrous explosion of the hydrogen-filled Hindenberg. Today, new designs of safer airships are undergoing something of a revival for alternative transport of goods, terrain exploration, and again, for military reconnaissance.
Moffett Field Historical Society
In this 1934 U.S. Navy photo, the USS Macon arrives at Hangar One.
“It’s an asset that can not be easily re-created,” said Brian Hall, CEO of Airship Ventures, which uses Hangar Two on Moffett Field, for its Eureka airship. His company, which also offers passenger Zeppelin rides, had its airship built in Germany. See previous column on Airship Ventures
If Hangar One is properly restored it could also be used to build, test or maintain other airships in this burgeoning “airship village,” Hall noted, because of its size and steel frame. In 2010, Northrop Grumman NOC +0.59% won a $517 million contract to build three airships for the U.S. Army. “Why is all this business going to the East Coast?” Hall said.
The USS Macon and Hangar One put Moffett Field on the map, the first inklings of the local defense industry that helped create Silicon Valley.
“It’s an imposing structure,” said Bill Stubkjaer, curator at the Moffett Field Historical Society. “This is almost the beginning of Silicon Valley….If Moffett wasn’t here, I don’t think NASA would have been here and if NASA wasn’t here, I don’t think Lockheed would have been here. This has really led the transformation of Mountain View and Sunnyvale from farming communities to a center of high tech.”
As NASA dawdles, the locals stew, and time passes. And who knows how long H211’s offer will last?
“This is a situation that needs a decision,” Ambrose said.
Therese Poletti is a senior columnist for MarketWatch in San Francisco.