At NASA, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are getting the same treatment as The President of the United States.
As first reported by online gossip hound Valley Wag, the Google boys are free to land their unusually-large Boeing jet at Moffett Field, the NASA-run airport that's just a few miles from Google's offices - and typically off-limits to planes owned by ridiculously-wealthy private citizens.
In an interview with The Reg, NASA has confirmed that Moffett plays host to George W. Bush when he jets into Northern California for state visits. But it's not that the space mavens equate Larry and Sergey with our sitting president. NASA wouldn't be so cruel. Through a private holding company called H211, Google execs are paying the organization "between $1.3m and $2.3m" a year to park as many as four jets at Moffett, including "two or three" Gulfstream Vs.
At The Reg, we're well aware that money talks, but the news is still surprising. NASA occasionally shares Moffett with outside organizations, but not unless they're doing NASA-related stuff.
"There are a couple of private entities that have paid us to use the airfield in the past," Steve Zornetzer, associate director for institutions and research at NASA's Ames Research Center, told us. "But they've all had a direct connection to our mission." Think Lockheed Martin. Or The Army.
Until now, ridiculously-wealthy Silicon Valley big-wigs have been forced to use the public airports in San Francisco, San Jose, and San Carlos - a hardship that's proved particularly difficult for Oracle kingpin Larry Ellison. Yes, the San Carlos call letters are SQL, but San Jose residents once took him to court over late-night landings.
Well, NASA is claiming that Google was only allowed into the airfield because it's doing NASA-related stuff too. According to Zornetzer, the organization has been given "the opportunity to equip each and every [Google] plane with an on-board instrument package that will collect data on virtually every single flight that's made."
"We're interested in collecting primarily earth science data," Zornetzer told us. "So we'll be interrogating the atmosphere as well as surface features of the earth as the planes fly at different altitudes. The Gulfstream Vs are particularly interesting to us because they usually fly between 40,000 and 45,000 feet, which is higher than most planes fly and we'll be able to get very interesting data that we've never collected before at those altitudes."
That includes carbon dioxide and moisture levels in the atmosphere, and heat reflecting from the earth's surface - "all sorts of the things that are very interesting to us from the perspective of understanding climate change."
So Google has better research aircraft than NASA? Yes. In a way. "There are a few planes at NASA that are instrumented to do these sorts of things, but many of them are UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. UAV flight regimens are tightly controlled, and they're very limited assets," Zornetzer explained.
Of course, this is just another way of saying the deal is all about money. NASA can't afford to buy its own Gulfstreams, so it's using Google's.
[And, of course, NASA can gain valuable data on what it's like to bounce a colored ball off a hammock while sipping a cocktail - Ed.]
But that leaves one remaining question: Why did NASA swing this deal with Google and not some other corporate-jet-waving tech company? From where we're sitting, it looks like Google has beaten the rest of Silicon Valley to yet another great idea.
Memo to Larry Ellison
If you want it, we have NASA's phone number. ®