The H211/NASA Controversy

Through a FOIA request Valleywag, the Gawker Media blog covering Silicon Valley, has obtained emails correspondences between Google and NASA staff.

The private holding company H211 manages the aircraft of Google co-founders Larry Page, Sergey Brin and the Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt. H211 leased space at Ames Research Center, Moffett Air Park, just three miles from Google’s Mountain View California headquarters from 2007 until August 31, 2013 when NASA [the sponsor of the agreement] decided not to continue the lease. H211 states it is not affiliated with Google Inc.

H211 and NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) signed an agreement to share expertise and facilities to conduct earth science research. The agreement allowed ARC to place instruments on the airplanes managed by H211 for research and analysis. [To read view here]

According to Pentagon records H211 purchased 2.3 million gallons of jet fuel during the lease at an average price of $3.19 a gallon to $3.33 a gallon while the average price in surrounding San Francisco Bay Area airports was about $4.50 a gallon.  The agreement stipulated  the fuel was to be used for the “performance of a U.S. government contract, charter or other approved use.” The WSJ reported:

The agency says it recently charged H211 on a cost-plus basis, and before that charged a standard budgetary price that was infrequently reset but over time reflected the government’s costs.

H211 paid $113,365.74 a month in rent, full market value for the hangar space.

Ken Ambrose, H211′s director, stated NASA earns about 2 million USD a year from the company’s presence at the air field. H211 pays rent for the hangar and office space at the park, and contributes scientific data from its jets. A NASA spokesperson said; “NASA is always looking for innovative, public-private partnerships to help advance our mission and provide benefit to the American taxpayer.”

In a letter to Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) NASA stated it has the authority to accept H211′s planes at Moffett Field because they contribute to NASA experiments and one of “The main criterion to accept aircraft at Moffett Field Airfield is mission alignment with NASA.”

One of the H211 planes offers a fairly unique capability to fly from near the Earth’s surface to 50,000 feet while making in situ observations and vertical profiles from the surface into the lower stratosphere. The H211 aircraft have supported various science missions including observations of the Augrid meteor shower, Arctic Sea ice experiments, flights with ozone instrumentations and the Jules Verne” mission. Additionally, H211, LLC, pays the Department of Defense an in-plane fee and an excise tax for its fuel. NASA does not provide any fuel to H211, LLC. [Letter to Representative Tom Price]

The plane with “fairly unique capability” is a Dornier Alpha Jet, used for pilot training and as a light fighter aircraft. The modification and certification of Google’s passenger planes to carry scientific instruments was causing significant delays back in 2007-2008 when the deal was struck so the Alpha jet was purchased. Associate Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Steve Zornetzer said at the time; “The Alpha Jet they are bringing on board is considered an experimental aircraft, so we don’t have the same issues as with a passenger plane.”

It is unclear how many of the other jets in the fleet contributed  scientific data. Records show that H211 jets flew a series of 155 missions specifically for NASA.

FAA flight records show over 700 flights were made by the H211 jets from Moffett Air field. The majority of destinations were business hubs like LA and NY but flights also went to popular vacation destinations like the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Tahiti. H211 purchased 24,000 gallons of jet fuel ahead of a wedding in Croatia several of its jets flew to.

US Sen. Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) is seeking an audit of the arrangements and has requested the passenger manifests of every flight made by the eight H211 aircrafts since 2007.

On May 30, 2012 Ken Ambrose told Senator Chuck Grassley H211 has “no relationship with Director Worden other than as a NASA tenant.”

The 63 pages of documents obtained through the FOIA can be viewed here.

A statement released by Ken Ambrose regarding the questions surrounding the H211-NASA deal.

Until last month, H211 aircraft have purchased the only fuel available at Moffett, which monopoly fuel is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency. The invoices we receive include all applicable taxes, and we have not sought any tax exemptions, even for the dedicated NASA missions we conduct.

Our presence at Moffett has been criticized, analyzed, and investigated by a variety of public and private groups nearly every year of our seven year lease term. The bottom line is we pay full retail for hangar space that includes none of the ground support typically included at business aircraft hangars. Further we conduct a robust research flight schedule that is the most consistently reliable airborne science program at any NASA facility. Between rent, capital improvements, and science flying, NASA and the taxpayers are $2 million per year to the good from our tenancy at Moffett.

While pursuing fuel alternatives since the August 31 policy change, we are maximizing the fuel loads with which our airplanes return to Moffett.


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