Senator Grassley To NASA: What's Going On At Ames?

There is building interest by Senator Chuck Grassley’s office in the arrangement that Google has with NASA and its Ames Research Center. Of the many questions raised by the Senator, one in particular concerns why Google, which houses an air fleet consisting of several jets at Ames, including but not limited to a Boeing 767, a Boeing 757, and a couple of Gulfstream 550’s, may be paying discounted fuel taxes for its jets.

To be sure, currently it’s a bit unclear as to what Google is paying to fuel its air fleet. It could be that Google is exempt from the fuel tax, which for Jet-A was 21.9¢ per gallon in 2007. But one report indicates that Google is paying as low as half-price, or 50¢ on the dollar, for Jet-A. Just to put this into perspective, Jet-A fuel retails for between $5.95 at Palo Alto Airport (PAO) and $8.09 at San Francisco International (SFO).One of the justifications for Google’s fleet of aircraft being housed at Ames was that they would be used to conduct scientific research, a sort of merging of business with science. It was a hallmark deal between government and business. Interestingly, we haven’t read that HP, Apple, or other companies were invited to participate in a similar deal. In any case, according to Senator Grassley, only around 5% of flights by the Google air fleet could be considered scientific in nature.

So is the fuel price question really a big deal? The maximum fuel capacity of a B-767 ER is 23,980 U.S. gallons, which translates into a price range of $142,681 to $193,998 using the above prices. If Google is getting preferential treatment in jet fuel prices, that could mean a loss to tax-payers of between $70,000 and $97,000. Per flight. Considering the number of flights mentioned in Senator Grassley’s May 14 letter, that could be quite a bit of money.

Another issue raised by Senator Grassley in an earlier letter, dated April 18, 2012, concerns possible ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) violations and other unspecified national security lapses. The Senator’s letter speaks for itself.

If any of this is true, the real question is who negotiated the deal with Google, what was the basis for doing so, and why are American tax-payers subsidizing jet fuel expenses for the largest search company in the world and getting little in return? If security violations have occurred at Ames, have the security shortfalls that led to those violations been resolved? Senator Grassley’s concerns raised in his two letter will hopefully be answered soon by the NASA Administrator.

Update: After reading the April 18th letter from Senator Grassley to NASA Administrator Bolden, it was my feeling that, given the gravity of the concerns raised, the letter’s contents should stand on their own. That sadly led to some confusion, which in hindsight seems reasonable. Why are two letters covering two distinctly different topics included in one post with commentary only on one of those letters? In that light, my post doesn’t make it obvious that the gist of Senator Grassley’s letters to NASA Administrator Bolden are that something is amiss at Ames.

In an effort to clarify confusion, the post and its title has been updated. Content was not removed. A paragraph was moved up, another appended by two sentences, and a short paragraph added to address the April 18th letter.

Jim Hillhouse

27 comments to Senator Grassley To NASA: What’s Going On At Ames?

  • Karol

    With 126 million dollars being diverted from the NASA Cross Agency Support account to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program of the Department Of Justice by the House in the recent budget, such impropriety could not come out at a worse time. Such actions not only provide bullets to NASA budget-slashers, but load the firearm as well.

  • James Muncy

    You are SUCH a freaking idiot, Hillhouse.

    1) The Air Force sells the fuel to the H211 firm that owns the planes (not Google). The Air Force is not allowed to charge more than a small markup over cost. The taxpayer doesn’t lose SQUAT.

    2) The rent for the space is above market prices versus SJC or even SFO. NASA earns cash that isn’t otherwise available to fund research at Ames.

    3) And the Google executives that own the planes make them available to NASA. In fact NASA carries out 15% of the flights, paying only fuel cost, instead of having to lease planes at full commercial cost.

    4) This is a great deal for NASA.

    5) Why the hell are you shilling for a leftist public interest law group that is at war with Google?

    The owners of this website owe NASA, Charlie Bolden, and Pete Worden an apology for this crappy story.

    – Jim Muncy

    • Jim,

      If all you write is true, then Charlie Bolden will be able to put this issue to bed quickly.

      But what’s interesting is that neither Charlie Bolden nor the NASA IG have yet responded to Senator Grassley’s April 18 letter, prompting the Senator to wrote another letter, one more specific, and one with a deadline. It took you…what, 15 minutes at most to comment here. What’s taking NASA so long?

      This article is not “shilling”. As the sole owner of AmericaSpace, in as much as anyone can “own” something that derives its value from the work of great writers and photographers here, I will not apologize for reporting on the news. And NASA’s failure in responding to two letters from a Senior Senator and full Committee Ranking Member, the first over a month ago, is news. What is also newsworthy, especially in light of the plain vanilla answers you gave in your comment, is that you doth protest too much.

      Thanks for this info. I hope NASA responds to Grassley with the same, innocuous points. And when it does, this issue will be, as you point out, a non-event.

  • HQ Guy

    The leasing agreement between NASA and Google was negotiated, reviewed, approved, and signed during Mike Griffin’s tenure as NASA Administrator. Maybe you should ask him why he cut this deal.

  • Karol

    Jim – Thank you very much for the courteous, gentlemanly tenor of your reply. I thoroughly enjoy AmericaSpace. The highly engrossing, educational, and entertaining articles about spaceflight history are obviously the product of a great deal of effort. Thank you for addressing issues to the best of your ability with the information available to you in a fair, intelligent, balanced, civil and dispassionate manner. I appreciate, as do many amongst your readership, that you do not resort to name calling or personal attacks to support your views as is now the norm. Please continue the great work, God’s Speed Jim Hillhouse!

  • Borecrawler

    In reply to James Muncy:
    You lost me at “You are SUCH a freaking idiot, Hillhouse”. It appears that this site is providing news, based on the best available evidence and research. If Mr. Hillhouse is correct, we need to stop this waste, if he is wrong, then he is still not a freaking idiot. I, for one will wait until Bolden’s reply and subsequent actions to determine the validity of the complaint (Reminder-Hillhouse isn’t the complaintant; he is only reporting on the issue).
    Also, I would appreciate it if you would explain your acronyms to those of us who are less familiar with your world (SJC?). Based on the tone of your post, I am left to assume that SFO stands for “SO freaking obnoxious”.

  • HQ Guy

    SJC is the international airport designation for San Jose International Airport. SFO is the designation for San Francisco. Both airports are within 20-30 minutes driving distance of Moffett Field and/or Google HQ. Aircraft storage fees are much cheaper at these airports. As for the agreement and the “impropriety” that Karol refers to – there is no impropriety. NASA, DoD, and Google are all adhering to the letter and spirit of their agreements – agreements that have been in place for nearly 5 years – and recently renewed. Two NASA Administrators (Griffin and Bolden) and two White House administrations (Bush and Obama) led by different political parties have given their OK to these agreements. These agreements have been mentioned in the media repeatedly since their inception. Everything is out in the open. Suddenly someone on Grassley’s staff doesn’t have all the answers to their less-than adequate research so they send off a letter assuming that something is amiss – and some blogs just pile on to the feeding frenzy without doing any research.

    • Ok, so it’s Mike Griffin’s mess, in your opinion. And Mike, having worked in SiValley, approached, and negotiated the contract with, Google. And if not, who did?

      All Charlie Bolden has to do is write back and answer the Senator’s questions. But he hasn’t. For over a month. Hopefully he will soon.

  • Borecrawler

    Thanks HQ Guy, for answering my questions-Most of my flying has been to LAX, PHO, DEN, SLC, SEA, MCO and DFW. I went to SFO once as a kid! Wish I could fly the SLS to the ISS!

  • James Muncy

    Out of respect for the readers of this website, I will attempt to be circumspect in this comment.

    The topic of this story seems to be wholly focused on the so-called Google deal. The letter pictured above and referred to as a month old is an unrelated letter about a wholly separate and distinct issue.

    The date of the letter about *this* issue raised in this story is… May 14th of 2012. Three days ago.

    I would hope that the author/publisher would check his facts about the duration of NASA’s question response time in the future. But I won’t count on it.

    • You’re right. I didn’t address the other topics raised by Grassley’s April letter because I don’t know much about them, save hearing that some believe there are serious security lapses at Ames. The points raised by Grassley in his April letter are very serious and I hope, as with the Google issues, NASA responds soon.

    • Jim, the “separate and distinct” issues raised in the April 18th letter may not bear upon those raised in the May 14th letter, but the central theme is that something may be amiss at Ames.

      Administrator Bolden should just answer the Senator’s letter and do so expeditiously. And a month’s delay is not expeditiously.

  • HQ Guy

    Mr. Hillhouse: did you actually read the letter? It is online here http://media.nbcbayarea.com/documents/Grassley+letter.pdf It was sent on May 14 2012 and asks for a response “no later than May 25, 2012” This letter has nothing to do with the prior letter from Grassley. As such, where you get “For over a month” escapes me. The response is not due for another week.

    Mr. Muncy: it looks like the editor of this website has quietly replaced the older Grassley letter with the new one from May 14 – but has not admitted his error in posting the older, unrelated letter.

  • The 2 letters are the same as originally posted.

    NASA HQ Guy, see the bold-face “Continue reading Senator Grassley To NASA: What’s Going On?”? Click on that and then read both letters.

  • Yes, the letters are about two different subjects.

    Grassley’s April 18th letter to Bolden deals with claims by several whistleblowers of possible ITAR violations and other possible national security at Ames. You have to click on “Continue reading Senator Grassley To NASA: What’s Going On? to see the April 18th letter.

    You’ll note, if you read the letter, that the Administrator had an April 27th deadline to respond to the points raised in the April 18th letter. I’ve been told that the NASA Administrator has yet to do so.

    The May 14th letter from Grassley to Bolden deals with the Google fuel and hanger issues.

    Main theme of both Grassley letters? NASA, what’s going on at Ames?

    In the title of the post, I didn’t put in “Ames”. It was likely an oversight on my part. So I’ve changed it.

  • HQ Guy

    I do not know who you talked to but NASA answered the first letter from Grassley – before the requested date – and also met with Grassley’s staff. As for your suggestion that it only takes an hour or so for someone on Bolden’s staff to send a response to a formal Congressional request – you clearly have never actually had that responsibility yourself. OGC, OLA, etc. all have to participate. Its like that in every Federal agency since these replies can have a legal bearing on matters between different branches of the government. Have you talked to NASA PAO about this? Have you talked with Grassley’s office? Have you talked with H211 or Google? ….. I didn’t think so.

  • Since you seem to know about the issues surrounding Grassley’s April 18th letter, maybe you could clarify some points for me and everyone here?

    What was Bolden’s response to Senator Grassley?
    Is Grassley’s letter the first time NASA IG Paul Martin has heard about the ITAR concerns at Ames?
    Are you aware of specific ITAR issues to which the Senator alluded?
    How did these ITAR issues come to light?
    How many, and which individuals, were involved in these ITAR issues?
    What were the nature of the national security issues Grassley was raising?

  • HQ Guy

    Since you are asking me these questions, I guess you mean to say that you have not already contacted NASA PAO and other sources and asked them these questions? Am I really going to relay that information in an open forum? I think not. You seem to think you can crowdsource your research and fact checking. And you claim to be a “journalist”? Curious. The answers to your questions are rather easy to find. You just need to do a little legwork.

  • Hey, given your apparent NASA access, you can’t fault a guy for trying.

    Since these questions involve national security and other sensitive issues, never mind people’s reputations, I understand why you don’t want to address my questions. They are, simply put, troubling.

    No, I didn’t reach-out to NASA PAO. But I did reach-out. And what I was told will not make it to bits and bytes. You’ll understand that, not being the NYTimes or WSJ.com, we are not always the first place that whistleblowers turn to in order to get a story out. Equally, Senate staffers don’t always jump when we reach-out to them. In any case, if someone tells me in confidence, yes this or that person is being investigated but that the investigation was suddenly called-off, we wouldn’t post that. Why?

    A person comes into and exits life with one thing–their name. I won’t besmirch ARC Director Worden’s name based on rumors.

    And that will stand unless and until I or someone else on this site has physical proof or three independent sources.

    If you ever do want to talk, you know where to find me.

  • HQ Guy

    Based on your reply Mr. Hillhouse I do not think you really have this whole “journalism” thing down just yet. You can’t even be bothered to call 202-358-1898, identify yourself as a journalist, and ask a few basic questions? And then you wonder why you do not have any answers? You don’t have the whole ‘balance’ thing down. Absent any answers from NASA you just side with Grassley’s questions by default and assume that the situation is “amiss”. Did it ever occur to you that Grassley and his staff may be totally wrong? That has happened, you know. Let me suggest that you ask someone like Craig Couvalt to explain this whole reporting thing to you. He still writes for you according to your website. He was doing this before you were (likely) even born.

    • Actually, my past experience with NASA HQ PAO has been, to put it bluntly, about as fruitful as talking to the dead. For example, when we were trying to get feedback on NASA’s unwillingness to comply with Section 309 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, we were regularly given the run-around…even when the Senate CJS Committee had subpoenaed Bolden! So, call me jaded. In fact, I think of checking in with NASA HQ PAO as pro-forma merely to get the Party line, sort of like asking the Supreme Soviet what it thought of the USSR’s invasion to crush the Czech 1968 uprising. “Invasion? What invasion!”

      No, it never occurred to me that Grassley’s people were wrong. That’s because others corroborated their take. I won’t go into any more depth because I don’t yet have a 3rd source. But trust me, I’m working on it, as I’m sure are others.

  • HQ Guy

    Mr. Hillhouse if you are not going to follow the basic procedures of journalism then you really should not express surprise that you do not have answers – and suggest that this lack of answers means that someone is up to something wrong. Nor should you expect that people are going to take what you write seriously. Again, you really should seek the advice of a professional like Craig.

  • Borecrawler

    Is the James Muncy who posted above a former Republican House staffer who consults for space start-ups, or is it just a name coincidence? This possibility may explain why you are so adamently opposed to Hillhouses’ “leftist” article. If you are the same person, it seems like you and Mr. Hillhouse share somewhat of a common agenda. Why the rabid attack? Don’t we all want to see a better, more open and more focused NASA?

    • You are correct; they are one and the same.

      For questioning gov’t subsidizing commercial spacecraft development at the expense of NASA’s own SLS and Orion programs, I am called a leftist. I think this is the first time in my life that I, as one raised in both West Texan and Alabama, have been termed a holder of “leftist” notions. I think that makes me a Maverick.

      But it does appear Muncy believes that, for commercial space companies to thrive, NASA must be starved. Such a view represents two errors. First, even if NASA did whither on the vine or SLS and Orio were terminated, there’s an asymptotically zero possibility that the newly available funds would be divvied up among the commercial space start-up’s. That’s as close to false hope, delusion really, as one can get. And I’m unaware of any positive results from the proverbial Snipe Hunt that is the search by commercial Space advocates for a market justification of commercial space. It’s really a chicken-and-egg problem.

      Unlike the rise of the railroad and airline industries, to which some refer to as an example of gov’t incentivizing the rise of a new markets, I believe this is the first time our gov’t has been ask to fund the DDT&E (design, development, testing, and evaluation), to use a metaphor, of the locomotives and airplanes themselves of private companies. According to such otakus, this is free-market or Conservative principles at work. Only Washington nomenklatura can be that…well, nuanced would be a polite word.

      • Ferris Valyln

        Sorry Jim, but that is way off base, and you should know better.

        • I hope you’re replying to your boss.

          But if not, which part didn’t you like?

          That so-called free-market capitalists, which I assume Muncy identifies himself as, are asking for gov’t funds to build private companies’ rockets? That the commercial space advocates have yet to identify a long-term revenue stream other than NASA? Or that as an Alabamian/Texan it’s a first for me to be told I have “leftists” notions (true, btw)?

          Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II all supported a strong and vibrant NASA; did they too have “leftist” notions? Or do you and Muncy consider stripping NASA of its human spaceflight capability by canceling SLS and Orion and turning the Agency into a regulatory body “strengthening” NASA? Only in the Washington policy bubble would that be “strengthening”.

          I think most Americans would consider the desire for a strong and rejuvenated NASA as neither “leftist” nor “rightists”, but simply all-American.

          If DoD’s Military Airlift Command can function along-side Delta and the other airlines, why can the commercial space companies not do the same with NASA?