Making money for MoffettWhen it comes to finding the $7 million a year it needs to operate the airfield at Moffett Field, NASA Ames is between a rock and a president.
On the one hand, the space agency is committed to keeping the runway open for its own use and the occasional stopover by Air Force One. But it seems increasingly clear that the luxury of virtually locking up one of Silicon Valley's largest and most convenient runways for the exclusive use of government aircraft may not be tolerated much longer by President Barack Obama, who has charged all federal agencies to downsize and reduce the federal footprint wherever they can.
As a result, it won't be long until the financial pressure to open Moffett to some outside commercial flights likely will overwhelm any opposition, including that from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and residents of Mountain View and Sunnyvale who happen to live under the airfield's potentially noisy flight path. Eshoo has not yet gone public about the issue, but a staff person in Eshoo's office confirmed last week she is concerned that NASA may give up control of the airfield.
For its part, NASA has been scrambling for several years to cover the $7 million annual tab to keep the field open. The agency may have set a precedent on what comes next when it signed a deal in 2007 with Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who forked over $2.6 million in order to park their private jets at Moffett for two years. Since then, Google has added a two-seater Dornier Alpha Jet to its Boeing 767 and two Gulfstream Vs that now are allowed to fly in and out of Moffett.
This exclusive relationship with Google's executives, whose offices are only minutes away from Moffett, has raised some hackles in Silicon Valley but certainly not caused an uproar. Flight records of the Google jets are not made public, but the planes are rarely seen in the air over Mountain View and neighbors have not complained about the noise, at least not publicly.
In order to pull out of its maintenance responsibilities, NASA would have to declare the airfield surplus or hand it over to another federal agency, like the National Guard. A surplus declaration could give local governments a crack at operating the field, although county airports director Carl Honaker said his agency — once a proponent of opening a cargo-only facility at Moffett — is no longer interested.
Honaker told the Voice that perhaps the best use of the field is to open it up to more arrangements like Google's, which could be attractive to other large Silicon Valley companies. Such arrangements could be lucrative enough to pay for the field's maintenance, without adding thousands of new flights a year over nearby neighborhoods.
By virtue of its central location and easy access to the Bayshore Freeway, Moffett Airfield could grow into a very popular base for corporate jets, particularly small fleets owned by large companies like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard. NASA should start discussions now and hopefully convince Rep. Eshoo to allow this somewhat benign use of the airfield that could take a $7 million a year expense off NASA's books.