Moffett Field’s Hangar One Goes from Navy’s Dirigibles to Google’s Robots

Moffett Field from the air in 2008. Photo credit: NASA.
Moffett Field from the air in 2008. Hangar One can be seen in the left center and Hangars Two and Tree in the right center. Photo credit: NASA.

Looking out over Silicon Valley, the airstrips of Moffett Field and its three gigantic hangars are a defining feature. The airfield is a bastion of open space surrounded by dense urbanity to the west and salt ponds and the bay to the east. If you drive by it along Highway 101, your eye naturally finds Hangar One. Oddly beautiful, it stands apart from Hangars Two and Three and conjures up a sense of hugeness, achievement, and possibility. Built in 1932 to house the Navy’s cutting edge lighter-than-air rigid airship, the USS Macon, Hangar One is the icon of Moffett Field and a symbol of pioneering aeronautical achievement in the 20th century.

You might have noticed that Hangar One looks different since 2011. This change in appearance was quite a catalyst for other significant changes.

The USS Macon in flight near Hangar One, 1933. Photo credit: NASA
The USS Macon in flight near Hangar One, 1933. Photo credit: NASA

Decades-long Dilemma: What to Do with Hangar One?

Heavy airfield use and related high costs for upkeep nearly shut Moffett Field down on numerous occasions throughout the six decades that it served the Navy as Naval Air Station Moffett Field. It officially closed as a Naval operation in 1994, when it was turned over to NASA Ames Research Center and renamed Moffett Federal Airfield.

Since that time, there has been near continuous evaluation of the fate of the airfield, and Hangar One in particular, by various federal agencies and commissions. The 1994 Moffett Field Comprehensive Use Plan found Moffett Field to be an important federal asset, as did all the other commisssions and committees over the years.

Hangar One in 1992. It looked pretty much like this for 78 years. Photo: NASA Ames Research Center.
Hangar One in 1992. It looked pretty much like this for 78 years. Photo: NASA Ames Research Center

In 2003, plans to turn Hangar One into a space and science center were put on hold when polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) was discovered to be leaking from its metal exterior. The Navy was still responsible for the environmental remediation, and its price tag of tens of millions of dollars. Initially, the Navy decided just to remove the metal skin and then demolish Hangar One. This prompted an outcry from local politicians, history preservation groups, and local residents who all wanted to save the Silicon Valley icon.

Graphic on the website of SaveHangarOne.org, founded in 2005. Photo courtesy of savehangarone.org.
Graphic on the website of SaveHangarOne.org, founded in 2005. Photo: Courtesy of SaveHangarOne.org

In May 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Hangar One as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. In its news release about the designation, they wrote that the Navy would probably be compelled to complete the remediation but then leave the skeletal frame exposed to the elements to avoid costly restoration. They were right.

Public Protests the Navy’s Plans

In 2011, the Navy began stripping the interior and exterior PCB-laden metal covering of Hangar One at a cost of $25 million. They had no intention of refurbishing the building, but they sprayed the remaining metal skeleton with a coating to protect it from the elements.

Meanwhile, three Google executives, chairman Eric Schmidt and co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had been leasing Moffett Field’s Hangar 211 for a fleet of private jets since 2007. In October 2011, while Hagar One was still being stripped, they offered NASA $33 million via their company called H211 LLC, to pay for Hangar One’s restoration. In return, they wanted two-thirds of Hangar One’s floor space set aside for eight private jets. NASA could use the rest of the hangar floor area and the space above it.

NASA apparently did not respond to their offer. Perhaps it was because of previous cries of favoritism to Google that resulted because their lease of Hangar 211 was never put up for bid, and they might have purchased jet fuel at a much-reduced cost. Regardless of the reason, the local community saw H211’s offer as the last best hope to save Hangar One.

Hangar One while the outer skin was being removed, 2011. Photo: NASA
Hangar One while the outer skin was being removed, 2011. Photo: NASA

In late 2011, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo motivated 21 members of Congress, representatives of the cities of Sunnyvale and Mountain View, and several other interested groups to communicate with Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, and implore him to accept H211 LLC’s lease offer. With such a viable solution so close, Bolden’s April 12, 2012 written response to Anna Eshoo did not go over well. Bolden replied that “…because NASA has determined that these properties no longer have a mission need and are therefore excess to the Agency, NASA’s Enhanced Use Lease Authorities are not available for these properties.” This incited a firestorm of local outrage and political maneuvering to bring the fate of hangar One and Moffett Field to the attention of all levels of the federal government.

April 27, 2012 letter from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and 10 other members of Congress to the Honorable Rob Nabors, then White House Director of Legislative Affairs. The letter expresses profound concern about NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's plan to declare Moffett Field and Hangar One as excess property. Source: Navydocs.org
April 27, 2012 letter from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and 10 other members of Congress to the Honorable Rob Nabors, then White House Director of Legislative Affairs. The letter expresses profound concern about NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s plan to declare Moffett Field and Hangar One as excess property. Source: Navydocs.org

Just Google it

By mid-2013, thanks to Congressional pressure, it was decided that NASA could negotiate a lease after all. An official NASA request for proposal (RFP) to lease the entire 1000-acre Moffet Federal Airfield (including Hangars One, Two, and Three) was issued in October 2013. A $500,000 cashier’s check was required as a bid deposit (returnable to any non-successful bidders).

Hangar One with its rafters exposed and artfully lit, 2013. Photo: NASA
Hangar One with its rafters exposed and artfully lit, 2013. Photo: NASA

In February 2014, NASA announced that Google’s proposal won and the company had signed a $1.16 billion, 60-year lease for Moffett Field. The runner-up was Orton Development Inc. of Emeryville, California, which specializes in building renovation and reuse. Google plans to allocate $200 million to rehabilitate the three hangars and two runways, as well as the site’s 18-hole golf course.

As of early 2016, Google is testing three methods for removing the coating that the Navy applied to the frame of Hangar One to prevent corrosion. Some contaminants remain under the coating, and the goal is to remove them before replacing the skin and renovating the hangar. According to Lenny Siegel of SaveHangarOne.org, who is also the recipient of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 Award for Citizen Excellence in Community Involvement, Google is also in the process of seeking approval for their planned work. According to Siegel, the most significant approval will likely come from the State Historic Preservation Office.

Google intends to use the three renovated hangars as research facilities for robotics and other developing technology. It’s not clear where their eight private jets will go, but cutting edge technology will again be housed in Moffett Field’s Hangar One.

Hangar One in 2014. Photo: NASA
Hangar One in 2014. Photo: NASA
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About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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23 Comments

  1. Debbie Dimick

    My dad worked in all 3 hangers. I’m a Navy brat, always enjoyed going to pick him up. Got to spend a lot of time in those 3 hangers . Thx for posting.

    Reply
  2. Christopher Butler

    This is inside of hangar 1. We were building a set for the breakthrough awards show. I believe this was 2014. You had to pass an instant background check just to get inside! It was a fun job with a very huge budget!

    Reply
  3. Michael McConnell

    When will they start?
    I moved to this part of the Bay Area in 2010. In 2011 they began to strip her down. She has been exposed way too long.
    Will it return to the public or will Google keep the public out of something that we built with US tax dollars?
    I don’t mind Google paying for runway maintenance, but that hangar is a historical landmark that should be able to be viewed by the public.
    Also, Google should pay US taxes instead of moving their money out of country like Apple. They are both not looking after the USA.

    Reply
  4. jim

    some places in Europe have used these for indoor resorts. Any thoughts on that idea?

    Also – what is happening to the (sister) hangar in Akron, oh. Did they have the same issue?

    Reply

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