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Tue, Sep 06, 2005

NASA: New Use For Old Moffett Field Dirigible Hangar?

Could Become Massive Solar-Power Facility

It's a plan that sounds something like a Monty Python skit specifically geared to the engineering community, but the idea has merit: NASA could either tear down the 73-year-old, toxin-laden, 200-foot-tall structure on the grounds of the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, CA...

Or, the agency could wrap it in solar cells.

The massive dirigible hangar known as Hangar One, built in 1932 to house the airship USS Macon and large enough to hold three ships the size of the HMS Titanic inside, has been abandoned for many years and was recently discovered to contain a toxic mess of asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Nevertheless, Hangar One is a symbol of pride to the residents of Mountain View, CA, the Bay area community that is home to Moffett Field and the NASA/Ames Research Center.

They reportedly see the building as an icon to the technology boom that created the Silicon Valley, and proposals by the US Navy (the agency responsible for the hangar) last month to demolish the structure, or strip it to its metal skeleton, were met with public outcry.

With that and California's continuing power needs in mind, NASA is researching a plan to cover the building with either a series of large, flat solar-collection panels, or smaller glued-on solar tiles conforming to the shape of the building. Another option would be to wrap the entire building in a stainless steel film sprayed with a layer of photovoltaic cells -- requiring enough material to cover the equivalent of seven football fields.

Whatever method is chosen, NASA believes the building could then generate enough power for 3000 homes, and even house an aerospace museum inside.

"Mars rovers have solar panels, and so does the space station. Why not here on Earth?" said Diane Farrar, one of the leaders of the preservation campaign at Ames, to the Contra Costa Times. "We could call this the biggest solar system in California."

The proposal is far from the simplest, or cheapest, choice. Simply demolishing the hangar would cost less than half the $43 million estimated to be needed to turn it into a solar farm, as the chemicals within the structure would have to be removed either way. Demolishing the hangar would cost $16 million, according to Navy estimates, compared with $20 million to decontaminate and repanel it without a solar cloak.

Supporters of the solar power plan assert that some of the difference could be recouped through government incentives and tax credits for utilizing solar power. Combined with the revenue generated through power production, proponents say the project could pay for itself inside of 15 years. Officials are gauging interest among solar firms on covering the exterior of Hangar One with solar collection devices.

NASA would help pay for the installation of a high-tech museum inside, tentatively referred to as SpaceWorld Hangar One. 

Local politicians haven't commented on NASA's plan yet, although a committee called Save Hangar One -- made up of area environmentalists and history buffs -- has circulated a letter asking them to force the Navy to preserve the structure.

There are naysayers, including Jane Turnbull, former president of the area chapter of the League of Women Voters. "If there is a private party interested in making that investment, that could make some sense," she said. "I am concerned, though, about using federal dollars when there are a lot of other needs in our communities."

NASA officials are meeting September 8th to consider all the options for saving -- or demolishing -- Hangar One.

FMI: www.savehangarone.org

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