"There is a possibility we will have another [airship] out here," Braxton said as he talked about NASA's plan for Hangar One.
The announcement was a revelation to those at the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board meeting, some of whom said they'd heard rumors, but no confirmation, that NASA wanted to once more park a huge airship inside the iconic structure. Among other things, it would mean that NASA plans to re-skin the hangar after the Navy strips off its toxic siding.
Earlier that day, the Navy made official its plan to strip the siding off Hangar One and leave the bare skeleton to NASA. Hours later Braxton said that NASA Ames is talking to two prospective tenants to find out who will share the $15 million cost of re-siding Hangar One.
Both companies are in the aeronautics industry, and one is working on a large airship for the U.S. Department of Defense, Braxton said.
"I know there is a lot of concern because we are working behind the scenes," Braxton said. "We have been in dialogue with headquarters and working with the Pentagon."
Braxton would not name the airship or the company, but many who heard him speak are now certain that Moffett Field may become the West Coast base for a 500-foot-long Army airship constructed by Lockheed in Akron, Ohio — in Hangar One's twin structure, the Goodyear Airdock.
"It was obvious to anyone who knows what's going on in the world that he [Braxton] means the one Lockheed is building at Akron," said RAB civilian co-chair Bob Moss. "There are only two companies in the world that are building airships."
Braxton would not give many details about the airship, but mentioned that it could be fitted with "sensors" for NASA's earth sciences work. Braxton also said the airship would be too large for Hangar Two or Hangar Three at Moffett.
According to Lockheed's Web site, a smaller prototype called HALE-D is in the works now. It would be used by the Army for missile defense and ground surveillance, doing the work of satellites at less cost. Wrapped in thin solar panels which charge batteries running four electric motors, the airship is supposed to be capable of flying above the jet stream at 60,000 feet for weeks at a time. Lockheed won a $150 million government contract to build it several years ago.
Building a hangar big enough to house such an airship would cost more than $90 million — much more than the cost of restoring Hangar One, Moss said.
One source familiar with NASA Ames' efforts to lease Hangar One believes Ames director Pete Worden is pushing the Lockheed airship as a "pet project." But the airship buffs who want to save Hangar One may not have a problem with that.
If NASA brings an airship to Hangar One, there will be "applause," Moss said. "You don't need a public hearing to know what the reaction will be."
In a speech during Moffett Field's 75th anniversary celebration last year, Worden talked enthusiastically about airships — the "clean transportation" they could provide, how they could help with homeland security and act as "observational platforms," or to "help us understand climate change."
Some worry that the airship plan would preclude other uses in the 1,100-foot-long hangar. At the RAB meeting, some brought up whether the Moffett Field Historical Society museum would be moved back into Hangar One. Braxton said it was being considered. NASA Ames realizes that the hangar would have to be opened periodically for some kind of "public touring" of the historic structure, he said, adding that NASA would like to park some of its historic planes in Hangar One as well.
The Navy plans to begin taking the siding down as early as October of this year, and Braxton said NASA wants to put up new siding while the scaffolding is still in place. A material for the new siding has yet to be selected. Having it all done in 18 months "is pretty aggressive," Braxton said, adding that NASA hopes to receive some extra funding from the Obama administration.
But NASA's first priority is to ensure that the agency is not left with any toxic cleanup responsibilities for Hangar One, Braxton said.
In an e-mail, RAB founder Lenny Siegel said Braxton's comments were "the most substantive and detailed affirmation thus far that federal agencies intend that the hangar be cleaned, restored, and reused."