Former Onizuka Air Station's new mission - Enhancing education

  • Published
  • By AFCEC Public Affairs
  • Air Force Civil Engineer Center

Once rumored to be one of the highest-ranking nuclear targets in the country, property that was home to the former Onizuka Air Station is now targeted for a different purpose.


The newly opened Foothill College Sunnyvale Center serves as a regional educational center and a workforce resource for emerging skills and entry-level, in-demand jobs.

The property is located on the former air station, closed in 2011. The former 19-acre military facility included the big “Blue Cube” building and was involved in space and satellite missions.

In early November, City and college officials gathered to celebrate the opening of the Sunnyvale education center.

The completion of the state-of-the art campus was made possible by the strong partnership between the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC), the City of Sunnyvale (which serves as the Local Redevelopment Authority) and the Foothill/De Anza Community College District.

“The Air Force was very accommodating as we tried to come up with a plan for the land. And frankly they didn’t have to be,” said Jim Griffith, Councilmember for the City of Sunnyvale. “The Air Force Civil Engineer Center really went out of its way to make it as smooth as possible.”

The process was not without obstacles, but throughout, steps were taken to ensure that each of the three redevelopment parcels would be put to its most productive reuse.

The City of Sunnyvale was initially interested in developing an auto mall on the property. The Veterans Administration was interested in a 4.4-acre portion containing the former headquarters building, and two local homeless organizations wanted the remainder of the property.

“All during the base closure process we were working simultaneously to help each entity put a redevelopment plan in place,” said Steve Mayer, Base Transition and Environmental Cleanup Coordinator for AFCEC’s Western Region office. “There were several obstacles along the way, but once we cleared up who was getting what

property, the process went very smoothly. In the beginning there were essentially three pieces to it; what the City would control, what the VA would control and what the homeless organization would control.”

With AFCEC leaders like Mayer guiding the way on redevelopment and decommissioning activities, a number of key decisions were made. These included determining what portion of the original government buildings would be refurbished and the best reuse options for each parcel.

In the end, the auto mall project never materialized and the two local homeless organizations, Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition and Charities Housing Development Corporation, vacated their interest in the property in exchange for a better location at a nearby armory site owned by the City of Sunnyvale.

It was at this time the Foothill/De Anza Community College District came forward with a proposal for an education center.

“Having all these plans come together took a lot of work and a lot of planning.” said Griffith. “And the Air Force was very patient and waited for us to come to them with a plan. They were very accommodating and assisted us in terms of directing what it was they needed to hear in order to move forward. Without that teamwork all of this may not have ever happened.”

After searching for a suitable location for several years, the District obtained 9.15 acres of the 18.9-acre Onizuka property at no cost from the U.S. Department of Education through the federal public benefit conveyance.

Actions to complete the property transfer involved coordination between Mayer (located in AFCEC’s Western Region office in Sacramento), AFCEC leaders, like Dr. Steve TerMaath and his staff in San Antonio, and city officials in Sunnyvale.

Foothill College opened the 50,000 square-foot education center on October 31, five years after Onizuka was closed.

“There is a growing gap between the needs of employers and the skills of the country’s workforce,” said Judy Miner, Chancellor for Foothill-De Anza Community College District. “And that leaves far too many quality jobs unfilled in critical areas of our economy. The facility will help fill that void and would not have been possible without the cooperation between so many entities, including the Air Force.”

Onizuka was selected for closure by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2005, and moved its operations to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California to consolidate satellite command and control operations and reduce excess infrastructure. The goal of the BRAC decision was to generate a more efficient use of Air Force resources and savings to the American taxpayer.

Onizuka’s final closure ceremonies took place in September 2011. The Air Force officially transferred operations to Vandenberg in 2010.

“When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite it was a real wake up call for the U.S. to get going with its own program,” said Mayer.

“Onizuka played a key role in that effort. When that mission was over, the property became valuable in terms of serving the local community in ways like adult education and the renovated VA facility. In the end all the different parties involved were well-served.”

Behind the efforts of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center and its partners, the Foothill College Sunnyvale Center will continue to serve this community’s education needs, just as the former Onizuka Air Station served the needs of the country.  


Additional information: For more than 50 years Onizuka Air Station was a top-secret member of the Air Force Satellite Control Network. Built in 1960, the "Blue Cube" building on Onizuka AFS was once rumored to be one of the highest-ranking nuclear targets in the United States. The station started off conducting operations on the nation's first imagery satellite, the Corona spacecraft. Following the success of the Corona mission, the base became part of the Air Force Satellite Control Network, which provides the world's only global antenna network for command and control for military, intelligence and civil spacecraft constellations. 

The installation was originally commissioned the Sunnyvale Air Station, but was later renamed for Astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who trained there and was later killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.