Why Has Google Leased Historic Moffett Airfield From NASA?

Google will take over the running of Moffett Airfield near the south San Francisco Bay area for the next 60 years.

The search engine giant took over the lease for the 1,000 acre property from NASA, although the US government retains ownership of the location.

Airfield Lease

Google is already familiar with the airfield, as it is used as a landing strip by Google’s management for its private jets, as it is only a few miles away from Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

Now, NASA revealed that it has signed a lease with Planetary Ventures LLC (a unit of Google) to manage Moffett Federal Airfield.

The site includes the famous Hangar One, as well as Hanger Two and Three, an airfield flight operations building, two runways and a private golf course. Hanger One was built in 1933 and can house airships. It is said to be one of the world’s largest free-standing structures.

“As NASA expands its presence in space, we are making strides to reduce our footprint here on Earth,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We want to invest taxpayer resources in scientific discovery, technology development and space exploration – not in maintaining infrastructure we no longer need. Moffett Field plays an important role in the Bay Area and is poised to continue to do so through this lease arrangement.”

Google’s Planetary Ventures will invest $200m (£127m) in capital improvements to the property and also commits to restoring and protecting the historic Hangar One, as well rehabilitating Hangars Two and Three. Google also will create an educational facility where members of the public can explore the site’s legacy and the role of technology on it.

But besides that, what exactly does Google intend to use Moffett Airfield for? Google is not revealing much, but according to NASA it will be used “for research, development, assembly and testing in the areas of space exploration, aviation, rover/robotics and other emerging technologies.”

There is also speculation that the facility could be the new home for Google’s top secret research and development lab, known only as Google X.

The Final Frontier?

Google of course has a number of exotic projects under development at the moment. This includes the development of a fleet of airborne drones, in a scheme it calls ‘Project Wing’.

Other Google projects include self-driving cars and even high altitude solar-powered balloons (Project Loon) capable of delivering Internet access to developing countries.

But it is possible that Google is looking further afield than that. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are known to be interested in aviation and space, and the search engine giant also funds the Lunar X Prize to land a privately funded robot on the moon.

In June Google said it would acquire US aerospace start-up Skybox Imaging for $500m (£298m). Skybox develops not just the satellite hardware, but also the image recognition and analytics tools used to make sense of the data captured by its arrays of sensors. Google says it will use this technology to improve the online maps service.

But Skybox is the second major aerospace company acquired by Google. Earlier in the year it paid an undisclosed amount for Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of solar-powered drones from New Mexico.

And this summer it was reported that Google is planning to spend at least $1bn (£600m) on launching a fleet of satellites intended to spread Internet access across the globe. The project apparently intends to begin with 180 small, high capacity satellites that will orbit the earth at lower altitudes than typical satellites.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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