Elon Musk chips in $50 million for SpaceX Inspiration4's children's cancer fundraising effort

SpaceX’s Inspiration4 flight achieved its space exploration mission, and it’s also on track to hit its fundraising goal for children’s cancer research, thanks to some help from SpaceX owner Elon Musk.

© Britta Pedersen/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Musk said on Twitter after Inspiration4’s successful splashdown Saturday, “Count me for $50M,” referring to the mission’s fundraising campaign for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The SpaceX flight, which took four tourists on an extraterrestrial jaunt, aimed to bring in $200 million total for the cancer treatment and research facility, where children with cancer are treated free of charge.

Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire who paid for the space trip and commanded the mission, pledged to donate $100 million to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital when he announced plans for the space trip in February. Isaacman set a goal of using the publicity around the flight, dubbed Inspiration4, to raise an additional $100 million for St. Jude, a Memphis, Tenn., hospital.

$200 million goal for children’s cancer research

Hours before blastoff earlier this month, the fundraising campaign had brought in more than $31 million on top of Isaacman’s $100 million pledge, said a spokesman for American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

By Friday afternoon, a total of $47.7 million had been raised. That left about $52.3 million to be raised by the campaign’s end in February 2022.

“We’re confident we’ll hit the $200 million goal,” the ALSAC spokesman told MarketWatch.

The fundraising campaign took in $13 million from 72,000 entrants in a sweepstakes that offered the chance to win a seat on the flight. Entrants were encouraged, but not required, to donate to St. Jude, according to the contest rules, which estimated the retail value of the space flight at $2.21 million.

Crew member Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old data engineer and U.S. Air Force veteran from Everett, Wash., entered the lottery by donating. He didn’t win, but a friend did and gave him the slot, according to the Associated Press.

Isaacman and three crewmates blasted off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sept. 15 and were splashed down off the coast of Florida Sept. 18.

The other mission members were Hayley Arceneaux, a childhood bone cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude and who now works there as a physician assistant, and Sian Proctor, a community college professor and pilot who won her seat through a contest sponsored by Isaacman’s company, Shift4 Payments  

Inspiration4’s payload included several items that will be auctioned off as part of the fundraising campaign, including an NFT of the band Kings of Leon performing a song; a ukulele that Sembroski played in space; and four pilot’s watches designed by watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen.

St. Jude intends to use the $200 million to grow its reach, the ALSAC spokesman said. “The goal is to expand research, find treatments and cures and expand the scope of St Jude’s efforts globally, because childhood cancer doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “It hits kids of all backgrounds, all ethnicities, all races, and that doesn’t mean just in the United States.” 

When St. Jude was founded by the actor Danny Thomas, star of the 1950s TV sit-com “Make Room for Daddy,” the childhood cancer survival rate was 20%; now it’s 80%, he said. “We want it to be 100%,” he said.

Isaacman is the latest billionaire in space

Isaacman became a billionaire in 2020 after Shift4 went public. His company has previously donated to St. Jude, and he raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 2008 and 2009 when he attempted to break an around-the-world speed record in a jet plane, Forbes reported.  

Isaacman has not divulged how much he paid for the space flight. His trip is the latest in a flurry of billionaire-funded space flights: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ventured to the edge of space with his Blue Origin vehicle, and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson hit an altitude of 53.5 miles.

SpaceX was founded by Musk, co-founder of electric car maker Tesla and one of the wealthiest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of about $195 billion. Musk committed to donating to St. Jude at a press event announcing Inspiration4, Forbes reported.

Musk signed the Giving Pledge, a public promise to give away most of his wealth either during his lifetime or in his will, in 2012. He’s kept a relatively low profile as a philanthropist until this year, when he announced a global competition with a $100 million prize to be awarded to a team that comes up with a solution for permanently removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Making ‘an impact on the problems of today’

Billionaires’ space trips have garnered criticisms about the value of wealthy people spending their resources on personal space exploration when that money could solve problems on Earth.

One of the frequently asked questions on the Inspiration4 website is, “Why spend so much money on space travel when there is such desperate need right here on earth?”

The answer: “Hardship and suffering have unfortunately been present throughout human history, but we can no sooner turn away from the great need all around us than we can put innovation and progress on hold. We have to find ways to do both. For starters, that is why we anticipate raising substantially more funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital than the cost of the mission, so that we can make an impact on the problems of today.”

See also: Jeff Bezos gives $100 million awards to Van Jones and José Andrés: ‘I have a little surprise for you’

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