Watchdog Group Questions Google Use of Moffett Field

A P3 Navy aircraft with Hangar One at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. (Copyright 2009: Douglas Messier)

A consumer watchdog group called (of all things) Consumer Watchdog has issued a report focusing on Google’s allegedly close relationship with the federal government. One of the issues they have raised involves Google’s $1.3 million per year lease of space at Moffett Field, which is under the control of NASA Ames:

One of the most visible signs of Google’s clout, the report said, is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Moffett Airfield, near Google’s world headquarters. When a deal between NASA and top Google executives to use the base was first disclosed in 2007, it called for only four jets to use the base.

But newly released government records show that the Google executive fleet has now grown to six jets and two helicopters, while at least 40 Google employees hold security badges at the base and all of the planes are supplied with Department of Defense jet fuel.

Key excerpts from the report dealing with Google’s flight operations out of Moffett:

In July 2007, Schmidt persuaded NASA to do a side deal with a company called H211, which is controlled personally by Schmidt along with Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The Google execs promised to allow NASA to outfit H211’s aircraft with scientific equipment to study global warming and greenhouse gases. H211 now pays $1.3 million annually in return for the right to fly private planes in and out of the base. This spring, the contract was quietly extended by NASA to 2014, documents show.

Google doesn’t get any special bargain on the lease. According to the HangerTrader.com, a classified advertising hangar service, Google is paying as much as one and a half times the average asking price for a hangar rental per month, as the NASA Ames lease with H211 agreement states they paid from August to September $226,731.48 for their hangar rental of 65,513 sq ft. This figure is almost as much as Google would have to pay all year to rent hangar space at two of California’s premier airports, San Jose and San Francisco. NASA notes that rental rates are subject to a variety of factors, including comparable rates at the San Jose and San Francisco airports, gross weight of the aircraft, and other considerations. Tim Murray of Atlantic Aviation, based out of the San Jose Airport, provided a quote for two Gulfstream Vs at a total average cost per year of $358,440. At the San Francisco Airport, Signature Flight Support’s Jay Singh provided a quote of $2.25 a sq/ft for two G5s – that averages close to $486,840 per year, which is far less than what Google pays currently, even when taking into account their Boeings 767-­?200 and 757.

The extraordinary aspect of the deal isn’t the money, it’s the fact that only certain organizations with a very good reason get access to Moffett.

“Not everyone can nor should use this airfield,” says the NASA policy. “NASA has specific criteria to determine who can partner with us and whether they may use their aircraft at Moffett. All requests by a private entity undergo a rigorous review process and every request must demonstrate a relationship to NASA missions.”

But the claim that NASA obtains substantial hard?to?obtain scientific data in return for hosting Google’s executive jets is hard to sustain. As reported in 2008, NASA engineers discovered they could not easily modify the company’s largest aircraft, a Boeing 757,
to hold scientific equipment. So in 2008, H211 arranged to obtain an experiment fighter plane, called the Alpha Jet, that could be rigged to collect data for atmospheric investigation project known as Cal-Nex.

But documents show the project ran into problems last year when H211 was denied Pentagon permission to land its jet at Miramar air base in San Diego. A schedule of six Cal—Nex aerial research programs from April to July 2010 does not include any Google aircraft. In addition, a June 25, 2010 email by NASA scientist Laura T. Iraci discloses that the jet had yet to undergo NASA’s Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review. Iraci also discusses how NASA is “starting small” with the new jet, attaching “very small self contained environmental censors.”

NASA’s public relations office did not respond to questions about Google’s contribution to Cal-Nex but a brief summary of the project by Iraci can be found here:

http://o3.arb.ca.gov/research/calnex2010/Afternoon/LauraIraci.pdf

Flight data obtained from the Flightaware.com web site and other sources show that the Alpha Jet is not used nearly as often as the company’s three Gulfstream V planes or the Boeing 757 and 762. Some of the Alpha Jet’s flights have been as short as 6 minutes (on April 7, 2010) and 11 minutes (on July 18, 2010). Lately, H211 has been able to block Flightaware from releasing data on the travels of the three Gulfstreams – notwithstanding the oft-repeated commitments of Google leadership to transparency in all things (particularly politics and government). Fortunately, a volunteer army of aviation buffs around the world, known as plane spotters, often manages to catch the Google fleet in action.

The flights tracked by Consumer Watchdog leave little question that Google’s leadership is living out the lifestyles of the rich and famous courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Air Google flights in pursuit of less scientific objectives include:

–On May 13, 2010 an H211 Gulfstream V departed Moffett at 11:30 at night, headed for the Nice-Cote d’Azur airport in southern France. That week, Google held an event for advertisers at the nearby Cannes Film Festival. On the night of May 18, CEO Eric Schmidt attended a party for Mick Jagger in Cannes. On June 26, an H211 Gulfstream V flew from Mountain View to Nice-Cote d’Azur for a second time.

–On July 9, the company’s Boeing 762 took off for Tahiti where a near-total solar eclipse was visible on July 11. Among the sun worshippers were billionaire co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The 762 and a Gulfstream V returned to Tahiti on July 15, according to flight records, presumably to pick up straggling Googlers.

–Last January 3, an H211 Gulfstream V flew overnight from the Caribbean island of Tortola to Mountain View, according to flight data. In December 2007, an H211 Gulfstream was spotted in Tortola for the wedding of Larry Page at mogul Richard Branson’s privately owned Necker Island.

–On January 7, a Gulfstream V flew from St. Maarten, another resort island, to Mountain View. An H211 Gulfstream also landed in St. Maarten in February 2008. The same Gulfstream was photographed again in St. Maarten on April 27, 2009.

Two years ago, the Mountain View Voice editorialized about “the NASA-Google connection,” saying “If NASA just wants the money, and doesn’t really care about ‘scientific experiments,’ it should dispense with the pretense.” (Mountain View Voice, December 7, 2008). NASA officials say that they are examining whether Moffett Airfield is “an under-utilized asset” that should be sold off. Such a sale could save NASA millions of dollars a year in maintenance costs and open the airfield to other private aircraft.

It turns out the scientific research is basically a fig leaf so that NASA can justify doing deals with private companies. NASA’s Moffett leadership also claims that the agency does research on environmental conditions in San Francisco Bay aboard a 246-foot long zeppelin airship that’s parked at Moffett. But the craft happens to be owned by Airship Ventures Inc., a private company which charges $495 per person for one-hour tours of the Bay aboard their zeppelin. The company’s board includes Silicon Valley investor Esther Dyson, who has various ties to Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki. (Both Dyson and Google are investors in Wojcicki’s genetics company 23andMe.)

While these deals are unusual, they’re not totally unprecedented. A firm named Zero Gravity (http://www.gozerog.com) also has a deal with NASA to use Moffett.

However, one NOT for profit outfit, Humanitarian Air Logistics, has so far been unable to obtain access to Moffett even though the group is clearly a charity. Strangely, Documents show that when the group asked NASA to use the field, NASA insisted the group obtain permission from the nearby city of Mountain View even though it did not impose a similar requirement on H211. The City of Mountain View declined to get involved.

According to a 2007 memo by the chief of NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett, Pete Worden, “Not everyone can nor should use this airfield. NASA has specific criteria to determine who can partner with us and whether they may use their aircraft at Moffett. All requests by a private entity undergo a rigorous review process and every request must demonstrate a relationship to NASA missions.”

One person with knowledge of the matter said a complaint regarding alleged favoritism toward Google has been filed against Ames with NASA’s Inspector General based on the different treatment received by H211 And other applicants.

NASA apparently charges the Google executives a better rate for supplies of jet fuel than is available from private suppliers. While the Defense Department charges H211 market rates for fuel, it does not collect any state or local excise taxes on the sales, according to the fuel contract between H211 and NASA. That means H211 pays less than full freight–unless H211 voluntarily turns over these tax payments to the state of California.

Read the full report.