The Intriguing Couple Behind a Big Space Exploration Gift

Foster and Coco Stanback have given millions to Caltech, including a big recent gift for some wild ideas in space exploration. The gift's inspiration involved a mix of James Cameron, the JPL, and Vasco de Gama. Meet the Stanbacks, who remind us yet again of the incredibly diverse range of characters and motivations you'll find in philanthropy. Sure, many donors focus on propping up the symphony or the soup kitchen. But others take their inspiration from 16th century explorers or science fiction. 

The Stanbacks are big believers in the innovative power of Caltech’s scientists, as evidenced by more than $24 million the Irvine couple has given the school over the past 10 years. It’s kind of an unusual philanthropic relationship, because for one, there doesn't appear to be an alumni connection. And they’ve given to varied initiatives at the school. They just seem to be really into some of the work Caltech does. 

In this most recent example, the Stanbacks gave $7.8 million to the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, in part to endow an innovation fund that will allow the department seed funding to pursue bold ideas. One example cited electrical aircraft that can be powered by energy beamed from space. The gift will also support four graduate fellowships, and launch an outreach program to inspire disadvantaged young people to pursue aeronautics. 

Foster Stanback in the announcement compared the gift to investments in sailing ships in early exploration. "When Portugal made those investments and Vasco de Gama rounded the coast of Africa with that first load of pepper from India, the world changed.” 

He also cited as inspiration his recent participation in the first meeting of Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, a group chaired by scifi filmmaker James Cameron and JPL Director Charles Elachi. The council “aims to advance space science and promote technological creativity,” and apparently involves big donors. 

Previously, the Stanbacks gave $6.7 million (matched at 50 percent by the Moore Foundation) to establish a center to detect and reduce the risks of natural disasters. Then there was $3 million for an environmental science lab. And a postdoc fellowship in global environmental science. 

Related - Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Curious about this couple yet? Me too. And the limited publicly available information about them is even more intriguing. 

For example, there’s not much out there about the source of their wealth, other than that Foster Stanback is an investor of some kind and an antiquities collector. He’s the cofounder of an inspirational program called the Wealth Triangle, which sounds like a cross between Tony Robbins and est. 

He’s also the founder of the Apologetics Research Society, which is devoted to disseminating evidence of Christianity and the Christian Bible, and supporting missionary activities. The Stanbacks were missionaries in Mexico for years. And one of the couple’s non-Caltech donations was to establish a museum devoted to ancient artifacts related to Christianity at York College in Nebraska. 

Oh, and Foster Stanback has written a bunch of books published by a small press, including financial guides like The Book of Financial Wisdom, and religious texts such as Christianity and the Paranormal

So there's all that. We see a lot of interesting characters in the world of philanthropy, but the Stanbacks really show that sometimes you just don't know what makes big donors tick. One thing's for sure though: Caltech has welcomed these allies with open arms, and managed to bring them along for some impressive and varied programs. I guess having the guy who directed Aliens on your side doesn't hurt either.

Related: The Philanthropy of Stargazing: We're In a New Golden Age of Mega Telescope Projects