Moffett Federal Airfield’s Hangar One, an enormous structure built to house airships in the 1930s, was torn down to its skeletal structure in 2012 because toxic chemicals from its roof and siding were polluting nearby air and groundwater. Credit: NASA

SAN FRANCISCO — There are few people who know Moffett Federal Airfield as well as William Willoughby, the chief operations officer for the Silicon Valley Space Center. While working for United Airlines and the Universities Space Research Association, Willoughby oversaw maintenance for the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Program, a joint NASA-German Aerospace Center initiative to conduct research using a telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. SOFIA’s aircraft operations were based at Moffett Field from 1997 until 2007, when they moved to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Now, Willoughby is working with a coalition of Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs seeking to restore and develop Moffett Field’s three historic aircraft hangars, 400-hectare airfield, 18-hole golf course and buildings on land that has been managed by the NASA Ames Research Center since 1994, when the U.S. government’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission forced out the previous tenant, the U.S. Naval Air Station.

On May 28, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), acting on behalf of NASA, issued a request for proposals from parties interested in simply restoring and leasing Moffett Federal Airfield’s Hangar One, an enormous structure built to house airships in the 1930s, or in restoring and managing Hangar One and additional airfield facilities. Hangar One, which covers more than 3 hectares and stands 60 meters high, was torn down to its skeletal structure in 2012 because toxic chemicals from its roof and siding were polluting nearby air and groundwater.

In response to the GSA solicitation, the Moffett Federal Airfield Alliance is drafting plans to upgrade existing facilities and build new ones. 

“The airfield should be the center for the ‘new space’ industry,” said Sean Casey, founder and managing partner of the Silicon Valley Space Center, based in Mountain View, Calif. 

Moffett Federal Airfield Alliance at a Glance

Established: 2013

Top Officials: Sean Casey, chief executive; Periklis Papadopoulos, president

Mission: To rehabilitate, develop, operate, maintain and manage Moffett Federal Airfield. To enhance the current facilities and create flexible, next-generation workspaces within a state-of-the-art entrepreneurial research and development center. 

Location: Mountain View, Calif.

One aspect of that plan is its proposed Innovative Design Environment for Air and Space (IDEAS), a multiuse facility in Hangar One to house startups and established aerospace companies seeking a footprint in the Silicon Valley, said Ed Fogelman, a spokesman for the alliance. 

Casey found inspiration for IDEAS in Texas, where Baylor University helped turn a shuttered tire manufacturing facility into the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, a center for science and technology training and studies. Casey envisions IDEAS as “a very large facility that houses space researchers and entrepreneurs, while supporting the local community.”

Community members could gather, for example, in the new facility for NASA-related events like the celebration in September of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, a robotic moon mission managed by NASA Ames, Casey said. Thousands of people traveled to NASA Ames to watch on screens as the probe was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. 

To take over the airfield and create IDEAS will require funding. Teams submitting proposals to GSA by the Nov. 20 deadline must include a $500,000 deposit, and the organization selected to manage the property is required to provide a $2 million security deposit. “The government will retain the $2 million security deposit until the organization that submits the winning proposal completes substantial work rehabilitating Hangar One, including replacing the siding,” the government solicitation says.

Moffett Federal Airfield Alliance members declined to name investors backing their initiative or space companies prepared to move into their proposed facility. “We are currently meeting with investors,” Fogelman said by email. “Their names will be released at the appropriate time.”

Alliance members are seeking to raise approximately $100 million from Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs over 10 years. “It’s within the realm of deals that get done in Silicon Valley every day,” Casey said. “It’s not necessarily a risky startup because it’s a real estate play.”

While raising that money is challenging, the biggest hurdles for the alliance are community involvement and coordination with federal, state and local government agencies, Fogelman said. The group is eager to win the backing of local governments, industry leaders and residents. 

One community leader, Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, has been involved in discussions on the fate of Moffett Field for more than a decade. Siegel helped lead the charge in 1996 to prevent air cargo companies from adopting the airfield for express delivery operations. “A lot of people who were here at the time are prepared to do battle again,” Siegel said. “We are waiting to see what is proposed.”

For his part, Siegel would like to see the runway torn up and replaced by housing. New neighborhoods built on the southern side of Moffett Field would provide needed housing for employees of local technology companies, he said.  

Another group expected to bid on Hangar One restoration and use is H211 LLC, a company owned by Google executives, including founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Ken Ambrose, H211 executive director and vice president, did not respond to phone calls requesting comment. 

Since 2007, H211 has paid NASA approximately $1.3 million a year to rent Hangar 211 for its corporate jets, which take off and land at Moffett Field, NASA Ames spokeswoman Ruth Marlaire confirmed. Under a Space Act Agreement, the H211 aircraft are outfitted with instruments used by NASA researchers to gather atmospheric data. H211’s lease expires in July 2014. 

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...