Google just snatched up a piece of American history in Silicon Valley. NASA announced on Monday that Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures would take over the Moffett Federal Airfield including the iconic and hulking Hangar One, former home of America’s biggest blimps.
Well, that sounds pretty weird. What on Earth does Google want with a historic blimp hangar and airfield? Are they going to fill it with robots? Will it be a giant Google Glass store? Does it have anything to do with those mysterious barges?
The truth, unfortunately, is probably not as alluring as you might imagine. In all likelihood, Google is taking over the facility so that it has more places to park its executives’ private jets, some of which are already kept at Moffett Airfield. This is after Google executives caused a stir, when reports emerged that they were abusing the company’s relationship with nearby NASA Ames Research Center, from whom Google had leased 40 acres for a 1.2-million-square-foot R&D facility. Apparently, Google executives were buying cheap jet fuel from NASA that had been subsidized by taxpayers. NASA admitted as much in December.
Controversy aside, Google’s taking over Hangar One is good news, especially for you military history buffs. Very recently, many people thought that the hangar would be torn down, as it had fallen out of use.
The massive structure was built in 1932 by Dr. Karl Arnstein from the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation in Akron, Ohio, to house the Navy’s USS Macon, then the crown jewel of the country’s airship fleet. With a floor that covers more than eight acres and can accommodate 10 football fields, Hangar One was one of the biggest freestanding structures in the world. It’s so big, in fact, that fog would sometimes form around the ceiling.
Hangar One’s days of housing airships were numbered, however. When the Macon crashed in 1935, the United States shifted its focus to aeroplanes, and the Army took over Moffett Airfield turning it into a West Coast training center for the Air Corps, predecessor of the U.S. Air Force. Over the next several decades, the base became integral in every conflict from World War II to the Cold War. It was also home to some of the first supersonic jets, though the noise bothered Silicon Valley residents enough to move the planes to nearby San Joaquin Valley in 1961.
NASA took over Moffett Field and Hangar One in 1994. It made sense at the time, since NASA had been operating the nearby Ames Research Center for over five decades, but the base proved to be nothing but problems. The agency discovered in the late 1990s that the building’s lead-based paint had decomposed and turned to dust that contained dangerous polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) particles.
The whole complex was shut down, and the Navy was called in to clean up the mess. In 2008, they decided to remove all siding and interior structures in 2008, leaving Hangar One a skeleton. Google executives offered to pay the full $US33 million to restore the hangar in 2012, a move that eventually lead NASA to agree to the lease.
So, for now, the good news is that Hangar One won’t be going anywhere. The more thought-provoking news is that NASA is continuing to turn to the private sector for income as its budget continues to get slashed. With Google’s money, NASA will be able to restore Hangar One to its former glory, rehabilitate two other hangars on Moffett Airfield, build an educational facility, and even fix up its nearby golf course. Google gets a blimp hangar; NASA gets a golf course. Everybody wins. [Wired]
Pictures: NASA / Ames / Geoff Manaugh