Space entrepreneurship at Moffett Field?

Moffett Federal Airfield.  On left of runways, NASA Ames, Hangar One.  On right, Hangars Two and Three.

On approach to Moffett Federal Airfield. On left of runways, NASA Ames, Hangar One. On right, Hangars Two and Three.  (Photo by I. Kluft.)

One of the landmarks of the San Francisco bay area is Hangar One, located at Moffett Federal Airfield. It was built in the early 1930s to house lighter-than-air ships, specifically the USS Macon. The field started as Naval Air Station Sunnyvale, but was renamed in 1935 to NAS Moffett, in honor of Admiral William A. Moffett, who died in the crash of the airship USS Akron in 1933.

In its history, several federal agencies and military branches have been located there, including the Navy, Army Reserve, and the Air Force. It is also home to NASA Ames Research Center, which started there as the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in 1939, on recommendations of a committee chaired by Charles Lindbergh.

Crossroads for Moffett

The airfield and surrounding land are now at a crossroads. The General Services Adminstration and NASA have put out a request for proposal (RFP) to lease either just Hangar One, or the whole airfield, including Hangars One, Two, and Three.  This particular post that you are reading started out as a reply to questions posed in the Mountain View Voice, the community newspaper of Mountain View, the town on the western border of NASA Ames. Mountain View is home to Google, and was once also home to Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, Adobe, etc. To south of the field, right under the approach to the runway is Sunnyvale, current or former home to a variety of other tech companies. Hence the original name of the field, NAS Sunnyvale.

There is a lot of debate about the future use of the field and the hangars. A couple of years ago, one plan called for ripping out the runways and using the land to house World Expo 2020.  This plan seems to no longer be viable.

HangarOneReleased in May, the RFP allows for a couple of two kinds of proposals: (1) just Hangar One, or (2) the airfield, including Hangars One, Two, and Three. In the first case, it seems NASA (via the California Air National Guard) would continue to operate the airfield. In both cases, the airfield would remain operational.

I have just started studying the RFP. There is nothing I see in it that allows the hangars to be torn down; if anything, there are varying levels of rehabilitation required. There may be reimbursable costs, but it is up to leasee to make the field financially viable. NASA Ames and the NASA Research Park in front of Hanger One are not part of the RFP, and remain under NASA control.

There appear to be four interested parties getting ready to submit proposals:

  • Google (presumably through its related company H211 LLC)
  • International Space Development Hub (ISDhub)
  • Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC) and its Moffett Federal Airfield (MFA) Alliance
  • Earth, Air, and Space Center of the  Air and Space West Foundation

Of these groups, at least a couple of them seem intent on space entrepreneurship: ISDHub and SVSC. The Google founders have invested in space companies, but there is no indication of whether or not space entrepreneurship would factor into its proposal. Thus, what space entrepreneurship means for Moffett Field will depend on who wins the lease.

Among the key problems: Hangar One was stripped of its external skin, which showed evidence of asbestos. That job was performed by the Navy before it handed the airfield over to NASA. A protective coating has been applied to the skeleton. But the hangar need to be reskinned by whomever is the winning leasee of the property.

The opportunity

(Disclosure: For regular readers of this blog, it is no surprise that I am an SVSC member. I am not one of the key personnel on the SVSC/MFA Alliance proposal. However, I’ve worked with other SVSC members on projects, and have had opportunities to talk to the founders of companies being incubated through SVSC. I represent the AIAA SF side of the Small Payload Entrepreneur TechTalks which are co-sponsored with SVSC.)

The opinions below are mine. They reflect my current thinking on the future of Moffett Field. If/when the proposals are released for public consumption, I might change my mind on some aspects.

In my view, using Moffett Field for endeavors other than aerospace development activities would be a lost opportunity. There is collaboration that can come from pulling several complementary companies together in a single setting. There are suddenly a lot more potential users of products concentrated together; discovering common needs comes much more quickly. These users may be NASA or small companies in the area.  In effect, as new economic supply chains emerge, participants are able to identify their current niches, and discover missing links and opportunities. [mod:0926]

To me, NASA Ames has demonstrated more interest and support for commercial applications in space than any other NASA center.  It had the Space Portal long before the rest of NASA put such a priority on commercialization. The NASA Flight Opportunities program at Ames matches technology with research flights all across the country; it is helping to accelerate the maturity of hardware to be used in space. These programs stand to reduce the costs of space flight even faster if Moffett Field is dedicated to that kind of collaboration.

Mastering aerospace complexities

What about technologies other than aerospace? Would only aerospace companies reside in an aerospace entrepreneurial research park? There are two answers to this:

1. Concentrated aerospace.  The unique value of Ames is to be able to pull developers of various parts of the aerospace ecosystem together in a single place. There are experts at Ames in various aerospace problems and technologies. The National Full-scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) is at Ames. The Arc Jet Complex, used to test materials for atmospheric entry, is at Ames. The Lunar Science Institute is there. The Astrobiology Institute is there. The list goes on and on.

There are things that researchers at Ames want and entrepreneurs would like to offer. Rather than travel (which the GSA has managed to restrict), conference calls, and shipping intermediate deliverables around the country, which usually have to be highly focused activites, this opens up the ability to informally affect secondary and tertiary effects of technologies, leading to quicker feedback and optimization.

If you want to develop better computing technologies, or simply want to have a manufacturing line, there are other places in the Valley to do it.  And close proximity to a flight line is not necessarily conducive to those activities, particularly if it is not a shipping port for manufactured goods.

2. The truly complex nature of aerospace.  Ultimately, the goal of an aerospace enterprise is to design, construct, or integrate a flight vehicle that accomplishes a class of missions.  For larger projects, the undertaking is so complex and has so many spin-offs that large aerospace companies sometimes identify themselves as systems companies.  The complexity and resulting cash flow requirements are just too high for the vast majority of entrepreneurs. Starting with aeronautics, the field traditionally includes: aerodynamics, structures, propulsion, and controls. But when you get to satellites, the dominant discipline is electronics.  This can be broken into power systems, sensors, computing, communications, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. I expect to see boutique companies focusing on a single or a small cluster of disciplines. The integration of these disciplines makes aircraft or launch vehicles possible; this is virtually impossible for entrepreneurs to do, except for the most well-financed.

The smallest flight vehicle that an aerospace company might attempt is a small satellite or an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs). In such enterprises, an orchestrated solution for power, communications, sensors, attitude control, and overall resource management is being attempted. For serious UAVs, structures and mass are traded against propulsion, which may be traded against aerodynamics. Successful flight vehicles need expertise in all these areas. Concentrating so much intellectual power in an entrepreneurial company is a major challenge.

Thus, the most likely scenario is to see companies with highly focused products or activities which are able to occupy a niche in an aerospace supply chain.

Museums

As for museums, I don’t see an inherent conflict between space entrepreneurship and having part of Hangar One as a museum.  If you go to the Computer History Museum, The Tech Museum, or the California Science Center down south, the exhibits show how technology works and what the potentials are for the future. The challenge would be how you cost-effectively add value above and beyond the other excellent venues that are already available in the region.  Furthermore, NASA Ames has a Visitor Center at the entrance just off Highway 101. Would that continue as an independent venue, or be folded into a museum in Hangar One? Presumably, those who are proposing a museum in Hangar One are figuring that out.

If you dedicate a substantial part of Hangar One to a museum or other educational center, then you will need the rest of the airfield and its facilities if you also want to support space entrepreneurship. Some entrepreneurial work will involve chemicals, gasses, or other hazards which probably should not be present in a public venue.  Otherwise, you need to accept from the outset that such activities cannot be pursued on the premises.  (Since Hangar One is a historical site, they may not be allowed anyway.)

What is at stake

The decision on how to lease/manage Moffett Field has major repercussions for the future of space entrepreneurship.  It is possible for it to struggle along in Silicon Valley, but increasingly, companies will find that it is more expedient to move out of California to Texas (home of the Johnson Space Flight Center), or Colorado (home to a lot of spacecraft design and construction), or other states that want space business.

The infusion of capital from Silicon Valley, where half of venture capital deals are made, is likely to accelerate the maturity of new commercial space operations.  This is much more likely to happen when companies are located within easy access to venture firms.  (Local residents understand the relationship between projects spun out from Stanford University and Sand Hill Road, which is just west of the campus.)

To be sure, a large portion of aerospace vehicle design and construction happens in southern California. That concentration of talent has allowed SpaceX to rise very quickly.  The concentration of experimental flight vehicle talent around Mojave, just north of Los Angeles, makes possible Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, etc.  However, some of these entrepreneurial companies are moving manufacturing and test operations to Texas (particularly, XCOR and SpaceX). Other states would certainly like to be home base to aerospace vehicle design and manufacturing, e.g., Alabama (Marshall Space Flight Center), Mississippi (Stennis Space Center) and Florida (Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center), and even Virginia (Wallops Island). If companies don’t want to stay in California, there are welcome mats in a lot of other places.

The decision for the next phase of Moffett Field lies in the hands of NASA and the GSA.  The residents of surrounding communities have their preferences on what they want to see, based on good and bad experiences with other local enterprises.  Space entrepreneurs badly want to enable technology for humans returning to the Moon, reaching Mars, and settlements on both.

The next phase of Moffett Field is more than just the next side-effect of base realignment when the Navy and Air Force pulled out.  It has potentially a major impact on how quickly a commercial space economy gets a foothold beyond Earth orbit, and how soon NASA’s limited resources can be freed up for more robust exploration missions.

[PostScript: Since I originally pushed this post out a few days ago, I'm making occasional small fixes, chiefly spelling or grammatical.  Paragraphs that have such mods are marked with [mod:mmdd], where mmdd is obviously the month and day of modification.  Given the readership I’m seeing, there may be a need to expand of a particular aspect of this article.  But I’ll deal with that as a separate post at this time.  –RSR]

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