The Casino Mogul Dabbling in Israeli Space Travel

Who knew that in between bankrolling the right wing and opening casinos in Asia, Sheldon Adelson would have an interest in space travel? He and wife Miriam’s family foundation gave $16.4 million to an Israeli engineering team trying to send a spacecraft to the moon. 

The Adelson Family Foundation recently made the grant to SpaceIL, a nonprofit participating in the Google Lunar XPRIZE that is challenging a private spacecraft to travel to the moon for $30 million in prizes. SpaceIL is one of 18 teams vying for the prize, and has built up quite a bit of momentum in Israel, with 20 full-time staff and more than 250 volunteers. There’s also an educational component to the work, SpaceIL having engaged with 55,000 students so far.

The team’s budget is $36 million, which includes government support, private donations, and $20 million raised by SpaceIL. The Adelson donation is most certainly the largest. 

It’s an unusual grant, to be sure, but you can’t really put much past zany old Sheldon Adelson. Hollywood couldn't create a character like him. The 80-year-old, college-dropout-turned-casino-magnate makes the news every month or so for something he’s done or said, like say, suggesting the U.S. launch a nuclear weapon into the Iranian desert.

His staggering giving to Republican candidates has elevated him to something of a Godfather for conservatives. He’s probably most famous for spending as much as $150 million of his fortune attempting to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012, notably as the primary donor for Newt Gingrich’s campaign. The CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation has a net worth of around $40 billion, and tends to show up to events in his private jet or a Maybach limousine. 

He and his second wife Miriam also have a foundation. The Adelson Family Foundation does not frequently fund space travel, however, as its primary mission is support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Adelson is a staunch supporter of Israel and gives millions to related causes. The Birthright Israel Foundation is one of its largest grantees. 

But while Sheldon commands a lot of attention, there’s a good chance the impetus for the space grant came from Miriam Adelson. She is an accomplished physician who studied at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. While her husband's entrepreneurial zest might draw him to a Google space prize, the science potential of SpaceIL must be particularly exciting for someone with Miriam's background.