New Google Zeppelin Hangar Cries Out for Zeppelin

PHOTO: The USS Macon is seen flying over the city of San Francisco in the early 1930s.
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Google this week came a step closer to acquiring a plaything far more wonderful and strange than even its mystery-barge or self-driving car.

NASA and the General Services Administration announced that Planetary Ventures, a Google subsidiary, had been selected as the preferred applicant to manage Moffett Federal Airfield and to rehabilitate the field's gigantic dirigible hangar -- Hangar One.

What Planetary Ventures and Google intend to do with the vast structure, Google declines to say. Contacted by ABC News, a Google spokesman said only, "We are delighted to move ahead in the selection process and we look forward to working with both GSA and NASA to preserve the heritage of Moffett Federal Airfield."

PHOTO: A rear view of Hangar One with the building skin removed.
NASA.gov
PHOTO: A rear view of Hangar One with the building skin removed.

Hangar One is not easily described.

Located four miles from Google's headquarters, it is big: 1,133 feet long, 308 feet wide, 198 feet high. On its eight-acre floor, six football games could be played simultaneously. It is so big that by some accounts clouds have formed inside, and it has rained.

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The late Allan Temko, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, described it as "a cathedral to a vanished technological religion."

That religion was lighter-than-air flight.

In the 1930s, blimps, zeppelins and other buoyant craft were all the rage.

Hangar One is huge because its occupant was huge.

The USS Macon -- an airship built by the Navy in 1933 for sea-scouting -- was 785 feet long, 153 feet high and 132 feet in diameter. She contained 6.5 million cubic feet of helium. By comparison. a present day Goodyear blimp contains 203,000.

Before there was Silicon Valley, there was the Macon -- the '30s epitome of high-tech. She could cross continents and oceans non-stop, unrefueled. From an internal hangar, she could deploy and retrieve, in-flight, five fighter planes.

On summer evenings, David Packard, then a student at Stanford, would lie on his back on the roof of his fraternity to watch the Macon fly over, marveling at her beauty and streamlining. When he shared this memory with your reporter many years later, you could still hear in his voice the note of awe.

Planetary Ventures, by taking over Hangar One, is taking on a lot of ghosts -- not to mention a whopping bill: The building is in wretched shape. By some accounts, the cost of refurbishing it -- which Planetary has pledged to assume -- might run as high as $45 million.

What in the world will Planetary or Google do with the building?

In the recent past, Google has dabbled with balloons, so using the hangar as a hangar might not be far-fetched: In 2013, Google, according to its website, launched what it called Project Loon -- "Balloon-Powered Internet for Everyone."

The idea was (and apparently still is) to bounce a signal between a network of high-flying balloons, thereby spreading Internet connectivity to the two-thirds of the Earth's population that does not have it.

Bill Gates, in Business Week, uncharitably dismissed the scheme as daft.

"When you're dying of malaria," Gates was quoted as saying, "I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you."

Asked by ABC News to say more about Project Loon, a Google spokesperson declined.

Nice as balloons may be, though, one must ask if the best use for a refurbished, like-new zeppelin-house might not be housing a new zeppelin.

Probably no one in the United States knows more about building and flying zeppelins than Brian Hall, who, until recently, was CEO of Airship Ventures, a zeppelin sight-seeing company that operated out of Moffett Field.

If you're going to spend $45 million to spruce up Hangar One, asks Hall, why not toss in another $50 million and get yourself a nice new zeppelin? Call it "GoogleZep."

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By Hall's calculations, Google could build a craft as big as the Macon for $50 million. (Getting it certified by the FAA, he notes, would be another costly matter.)

The possibilities for what Google could do with GoogleZep are endless.

The Akron, the Macon's sister-ship, once carried 200 passengers. If GoogleZep could accommodate that many, they'd have plenty of room onboard to roam around and to stretch out.

GoogleZep could be an airborne conference center or a flying hotel. It could be a showroom for new Google gadgets -- an aerial cousin to the Google barge.

If used for data storage and transmission, it would give a new meaning to the term "cloud computing."

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