Those planes are no crop dusters: two Boeing jumbo jets and two Gulfstream Vs. But as NASA recently admitted, it turns out they're inadequate for the job; FAA regulations prohibit tinkering with the airframes of the large passenger jets, making it virtually impossible to use them for the science NASA had envisioned.
That is apparently why H211 made a sleek new addition to its fleet a few months ago: the Alpha Jet, a European-built two-seater with a fighter jet design which will soon be fitted, NASA officials say, with scientific equipment of the sort called for in the agreement. But will the data it eventually collects be worth giving Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt a federally-owned staging area to conduct their private business? (The four larger planes will continue to land at Moffett as the owners see fit.)
It is easy to understand NASA's eagerness to roll out the red carpet for Google's top brass. The agency and the company are neighbors — Moffett is a short jump across Stevens Creek from the Googleplex — with many important joint projects in the works, including up to 1 million square feet of Google office space on the former Navy base.
More immediately, the $1.3 million-plus per year that H211 pays NASA is helping the agency make its $7 million rent to the federal government for using the Moffett airstrip. As NASA Ames Deputy Director Steve Zornetzer has told the City Council, were Ames to lose control of the airfield the FAA might allow cargo flights into Moffett — raising the specter of much more noise in Mountain View's airspace than the occasional "Google jet."
This is not the only such arrangement between a private company and NASA Ames. Just last week, the Bay Area welcomed Airship Ventures' 246-foot Zeppelin, which will provide hour-long air tours for about $500. This company, too, is renting hangar and airstrip space at Moffett Field in exchange for an unspecified sum and for help conducting NASA's scientific experiments (though we wonder how serious that second stipulation really is).
Whatever the terms, NASA Ames ought to be allowed to lease its space as it sees fit, so long as certain standards are met. For one, its arrangements must be made with full disclosure, and only if the conditions are met by both parties. If NASA just wants the money, and doesn't really care about "scientific experiments," it should dispense with the pretense.
Most important, it must be careful not to commercialize Moffett Field by leasing it to every big shot Silicon Valley executive with a million dollars and a plane. This last is why NASA Ames must review, and fully disclose, its arrangements with H211 and Airship Ventures, making clear what exactly it, and its new partners, are after.
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