NASA Ames released a statement Monday explaining why a Boeing 767, owned by Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, was seen on Moffett Field's runway last week.
Public affairs director Delores Beasley explained that under an agreement with the executives, the plane has been fitted with scientific equipment that allows NASA Ames to "regularly collect earth atmospheric and terrestrial observations" -- thereby allowing the plane to land at Moffett Field under provisions of a two-year lease.
NASA spokesperson Michael Mewhinney confirmed that the agreement allows the Google execs to "come and go as they please," and NASA researchers do not have to be on board. The plane will "operate out of" Moffett, Mewhinney wrote. According to some reports, the agreement also covers other planes owned by Page and Brin, including one or more Gulfstreams.
Mayor Laura Macias said Tuesday she didn't think it was a good idea for NASA to open the door to this type of agreement, and questioned how fair it was to others.
"There's so many people chomping at the bit to land at NASA," Macias said. "I think it's good when we all play by the same rules."
The airfield is restricted under NASA's Space Act, allowing only government planes and those helping NASA Ames with research or education.
Though Google now has an agreement to organize NASA's data, the 767 is not owned by Google, but by a separate company owned by Page and Brin called H211 LLC.
Steve Williams, an aviator who writes a blog about Moffett Field, wasn't as concerned as Macias.
"It's good to know there is some connection," he said. "It does not look so much like favoritism."
On Aug. 31, researchers from NASA and SETI -- Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a group of scientists based in Mountain View -- used one of Page and Brin's planes to study a meteor shower. From a high altitude, Beasley said, "Scientists on board recorded observation times, brightness distribution, elemental composition and penetration depth into the Earth's atmosphere."
Five days later, on Sept. 5, the Google founders' unmarked red, white and blue jumbo jet left Moffett for Sevilla, Spain, where Google was having a sales conference the next day, according to Europa Press.
Macias said NASA was sailing in "murky waters" because it was unclear how much the plane was being used for research versus business and personal use.
There was speculation in February that Page and Brin would help save Moffett Field's historic Hangar One if they were able to park their plane inside. At last weekend's Art & Wine festival, Hangar One advocates gossiped about how Page and Brin were able to land the plane at Moffett.
"Don't get me wrong, I think it's a good thing," Williams said before he'd heard the explanation from NASA. "I just want to know how they did it, so that frankly I can apply for my own authorization. My aircraft makes a lot less noise."
The Boeing 767 is the only jumbo jet at Moffett Field. The 34-year old executives bought it from Quantas Airlines in 2005 for less than $15 million, which is arguably a better value than a traditional private jet.
It was then revamped into a 50-passenger "party plane," as Google CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly put it. After a lawsuit over payment for that work, VIP interior designer Leslie Griffin revealed some of the odd requests for the plane reportedly made by Page and Brin, including hammocks hanging from the ceiling.
After the Navy left Moffett Field in the 1990s, disagreement over how the airstrip would be used has continued to this day, even among those who are trying to save Hangar One. Williams contends that commercial and personal planes flying in from the Bay will have little noise impacts, while fellow Hangar One advocate Lenny Siegel has called for housing to replace the airstrip. Macias believes Moffett would be a bad location for a public airfield.
The airfield is currently used regularly by Air National Guard helicopters for training and operations, Lockheed, NASA Ames, military shipments, and occasionally President Bush's Air Force One. Beasley said the Google execs' jet would not tip the airfield over its limit of 25,000 flights a year.