NASA Accused of Favoritism at Moffett

Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Report claims Google benefits from special treatment

    Four years after the surprise news that Google executives were allowed to base their private planes at Moffett Federal Airfield, there have not been similar agreements made to use the airfield as officials had promised.

    Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page, co-founder Sergey Brin and chairman Eric Schmidt have the special privilege of flying in and out of Moffett Federal Airfield for business and pleasure, including trips to Tahiti, Gavin Newsom’s wedding in Montana and the Cannes Film festival. Their growing fleet of aircraft now includes at least one helicopter, two jumbo jets and a fighter jet.

    The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has issued a report criticizing Mountain View-based Google’s “cozy” relationship with the federal government, using the controversial deal for “AirGoogle” to use Moffett as the most visible example, and calling out NASA for playing favorites with Google on Moffett’s airfield.

    The report says that the privilege of landing at Moffett has been denied to others who came willing to pay for it, including a non-profit called Humanitarian Air Logistics (HAL).

    “It’s a sign of the times,” said Paul Asmus, president of Palo Alto-based HAL, in an interview with the Voice. “The wealthy get special treatment and the rest of us don’t. I’m fighting to create jobs for people, and these people (NASA and Google) sure weren’t helping. I wasted a year and a half” trying to base planes at Moffett. The plans would have been used to transport food and supplies to the world’s disaster zones, he said.

    Since the responsibility was dumped on them several years ago, NASA Ames has struggled to pay the $7 million a year to run the Moffett airfield, even with the $1.3 million a year from the Google executives pay to park their planes there.

    “We will act responsibly and aggressively to meet that shortfall,” NASA Ames official Steve Zornetzer told the Mountain View City Council in 2007. “There will be other partnerships.”

    Favoritism at Moffett?

    The deal allowing the “Google jets” at Moffett has been called the “ultimate perk” for Silicon Valley executives, many of whom would be happy to pay for the convenience of a runway in the middle of Silicon Valley.

    Asmus knows at least one of them. He had partnered with a billionaire, who he would not name, to try to lease space at Moffett. The idea was that Asmus’ company would include the billionaire’s planes in humanitarian relief efforts when he wasn’t using them. Asmus’ non-profit and the billionaire would pay for hangar space, like Google’s executives, bolstering Ames’ shrinking budget. It appeared to be a win-win, but it was not met with enthusiasm by Ames senior officials, Asmus said. And he believes it was because of Google’s influence at Moffett.

    “They (Google) really run the place,” Asmus said. Perhaps for privacy reasons, “Google didn’t want anybody else in there.”

    Google is probably the most prized “industry partner” at Ames, with agreements for Google to help organize NASA’s “terabytes and terabytes of data” and provide Google Earth-like applications for other planets. A one-million-square-foot Google campus is slated for the northwest corner of Ames, but has been on hold for several years. It’s understood by many that Google’s presence significantly boosts the reputation of Ames as the NASA Center of Silicon Valley.

    Asmus said that NASA Ames had a plan for what was essentially to be a mini-airport operation for those with private jets, potentially based in Hangar 211. And he says there was no shortage of inquiries from potential users. A “fixed base operator,” would provide the various owners of private jets with fuel, a parking space, maintenance areas and other facilities, much like San Jose Jet Center, Inc. does at San Jose airport, Asmus said. The question now is why that didn’t happen, and NASA public affairs did not have an answer by the Voice’s press time on Wednesday.

    Asmus was given numerous reasons it may not be feasible to base his humanitarian airlift operation at the Ames-controlled Moffett airfield, but none seemed to make sense to him. It seemed a natural fit: the site has been designated as a base for emergency response operations by FEMA.

    There was plenty of space: the three largest hangars at Moffett were largely vacant, but all would need expensive work to be suitable to house expensive planes.

    It made the most sense to use Hangar 211 and the surrounding tarmac for the private jet facilities, but Asmus believes Google executives, who now have Hangar 211 to themselves, probably opposed that idea.

    If you were a Google executive, “would you want Microsoft executives in there, would you want the Oracle CEO in there?” Asmus said. “Would you want to be sharing your private little deal in there with these other people?”

    Google’s public relations department would not address specific questions about the executive’s planes, but attacked the credibility of the Consumer Watchdog report.

    “This is just the latest in a long list of press stunts from an organization that admits to working closely with our competitors,” a Google spokesperson said of California-based Consumer Watchdog.

    NASA officials, speaking off the record, said that there were concerns about Asmus’ HAL being a “legitimate” company as it had no airplanes or employee at the time. And Zornetzer has said Ames wants only those tenants that can pay “top dollar.”

    Nevertheless, Asmus was told to go through various processes of getting support from local cities, even speaking to the Mountain View City Council, which the Google executives never had to do. In the end, Asmus said he’s never really gotten an explanation as to why NASA officials apparently dropped his request.

    While he still hopes to make an agreement for space at Moffett, Asmus said “there are plenty of other hangars and airports out there. I want to go places where I’m welcome.”

    The Consumer Watchdog report notes that one other airfield tenant was allowed hangar space at Moffett during Asmus’ effort: Airship Ventures. Airship Ventures is a for-profit company that has ties to Sergey Brin’s friends and family, and is even partly funded and owned by a subsidiary of Google, according to some reports.

    Google lease extended

    The Google executives’ fleet allowed at Moffett now includes two helicopters and six planes, according to the report, including two Gulfstream jets, smaller Boeing 757 and 767 jumbo jets and a small fighter jet called an Alpha Jet. The operation, called H211 LLC, is said to have 40 employees with security clearance at Ames, where the Google executive’s planes are stored and maintained in Hangar 211.

    In 2007, a reason stated by NASA officials for allowing the Google executives’ planes at Moffett was that it would help with NASA’s mission. Special data-gathering equipment would be installed on the planes to collect data for NASA’s earth science research. H211’s lease allows NASA Ames to refuse any H211 request if it does not follow provisions in its agreement, including the placement of scientific instruments on its planes to “regularly collect earth observations.” And according to a 2007 memo by NASA Ames director Pete Worden, requests to lease space on the airfield “must undergo a rigorous review process and every request must demonstrate a relationship to NASA missions.”

    While that equipment had yet to be used on any of the planes by June of 2010, Consumer Watchdog reports that last spring, Ames quietly extended H211’s lease to 2014. It was set to expire in 2011.

    Denying allegations from bloggers and community members that it was a toy for the Google executives, NASA official Steve Zornetzer said the Alpha Jet was purchased in 2008 expressly for the atmospheric sensors, which could not be placed on the other planes for technical reasons. Although those sensors have been installed, as of June last year, the Alpha Jet had yet to pass NASA’s “Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review.”

    Nevertheless, a NASA spokesperson said that H211 planes had been used for “observational” research, which means cameras and NASA researchers peering out a plane’s windows. H211 planes “have provided support for several of NASA’s missions starting in 2008 with the Jules Verne mission, the CASIE mission in 2009, and more recently with AJAX,” wrote NASA Ames public affairs director John Yembrick in an email.

    Zornetzer said in 2007 that partnerships to use the Moffett airfield would happen only if they meet two criteria. The first is that “top dollar” rates be paid by the user, which he said is the case with Google. The second is that the user must “enhance” NASA’s mission by outfitting the planes with scientific equipment to gather data from Earth’s atmosphere during flights.

    Asmus said he was willing to pay the asking price for space, which would have “easily” come to $3.5 million for his operation of at least 12 planes, some of them large cargo planes. And he said he would be more than happy to install atmospheric sensors on his planes, saying it would be feasible, despite an explanation from NASA that H211 had difficulties in getting the FAA to approve the placement of sensors on most of its planes.

    In 2007, Ames said it received $4 million a year from airfield users, $1.3 million of which came from Google’s H211. Those numbers haven’t changed much. Yembrick said in an e-mail that $4.5 million of the cost is now covered by leases. Additional airfield tenants are a wind power company and a second airship company inside Hangar Two.

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