Update Google's top execs have purchased a fighter jet and parked it at NASA's Moffett airfield because - contrary to their original agreement with NASA - the execs' fleet of passenger jets is unsuited to running the space agency's earth science experiments. At least, that's the word from NASA.
As we reported earlier today, H211 - the private holding company that owns and operates planes on behalf of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and chief exec Eric Schmidt - has purchased a 1982 Dornier Alpha Jet, and the 26-year-old fighter was recently spotted at Moffett Field, where Google's Willy Wonkas park their four luxury passenger jets: a Boeing 757, a Boeing 767, and two Gulfstream Vs.
According to NASA, the Willy Wonkas were only allowed at Moffett - just a few miles from Google's Mountain View Chocolate Factory - because their passenger jets would be used for NASA earth science experiments. In September last year, Steve Zornetzer - associate director for institutions and research at NASA's Ames Research Center - told us the space outfit had 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," he 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."
But as it turns out, neither the Gulfstreams nor the Boeings were ever outfitted for such experiments. During a phone interview this afternoon, Zornetzer told us that modifying the Boeings proved too difficult.
"We discovered that any modifications to the [Boeings] that either required a structural alternative to the airframe or changes to anything inside the plane - other than a handset looking out the window - would require new FAA certification," he said. "That would dramatically curtail the value of the planes to NASA - which was part of our original agreement."
Because of this, Zornetzer told us, the Willy Wonkas purchased their fighter jet as a "good faith" offering. "They brought in another platform - the Alpha Jet - which is being heavily modified to convert it from a military fighter jet to a civilian jet. It will then be considered an experimental plane. Since the FAA does not regulate experimental planes in the same way they regulate passenger jets, we will be able to equip the Alpha Jet with instrument pods and new electronics in ways we could never do [before]."
Zornetzer said NASA may have used hand-held scientific instruments inside the Boeings and the Gulfstreams during flight - but this wasn't a regular thing. "I believe we have flown some hand-held instruments in the platform, on a flight of opportunity, looking out the window," he said.
Last year, Zornetzer painted the Willy Wonka Gulfstreams as a rare scientific opportunity. But apparently, he's just as happy with a 26-year-old fighter jet. He says NASA has a number of planes based elsewhere, but none based at Moffett. "This gives us an opportunity to have a platform that we can heavily instrument right here in our own back yard and use it for scientific data collection in this immediate geographic area."
What sort of data collection? One payload, Zornetzer said, will "interrogate the atmospheric chemistry in real-time" in an effort to determine the effects of climate changes on greenhouse gases. A second, he said, will use cameras and infrared equipment to help "first responders" in the event of Silicon Valley natural disasters.
"We think this will be a tremendous opportunity for the tax payer," he continued. But the plane does not belong to NASA. It is owned by the Willy Wonkas, and they can do whatever they want with it whenever they like.
In our earlier story, we also pointed out that while the Willy Wonkas' original agreement with NASA only permits "Stage III or quieter turbine-powered aircraft," the Dornier fight is much louder - and may disturb Mountain View citizens and mutated wildlife. But Zornetzer said the plane will be modified so that noise is not an issue.
That said, the Dornier has been flying in and out of Moffett for nearly a year without modifications. Yes, nearly a year. The Willy Wonkas bought their good faith offering "maybe eight to ten months" ago, and the first science experiment has yet to happen.
So, NASA bars private jets from Moffett unless they have a "direct connection to our mission." But after all these months, Google's direct connection amounts to a battery-operated handheld looking out a window.
Of course, Zornetzer said all this will soon change with the Dornier fighter jet. Which leaves one question: Why a fighter jet? "That's a good question," Zortnetzer said. "I can't answer that."
One thing that is certain: Google pays NASA as much as $2.3m a year for use of the airfield. ®