Days before Jeff Bezos plans to blast off to space on a vessel designed by his rocket company Blue Origin, the Amazon billionaire is donating $200 million to the Smithsonian Institution to promote space education here on earth.
The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, located in Washington D.C., will receive $70 million to renovate its building with more sophisticated technology, while the organization will use the remaining $130 million to launch a new science- and engineering-focused education center connected to the museum that will bear Bezos’ name.
“It really was part of our long-term vision, but [we] didn’t have the resources,” says Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian’s secretary, who oversees the institution’s 19 museums. “So to be able to do this, to make it a center that is going to help reach out through STEM to underserved audiences and rural communities, it really allows the Smithsonian to do what I think is one of our major priorities.”
Bunch says Bezos will have the chance to offer input during the planning process, though the center’s opening is still years away. “The Smithsonian will obviously have the final say in all content, but we want to reap the benefit of Jeff’s creativity,” Bunch adds. And a Blue Origin rocket on display isn’t out of the question: “The aerospace team is always collecting.”
The donation also represents another step in the billionaire space race currently grabbing headlines. Bezos is set to fly to the edge of space on July 20. Fellow billionaire Richard Branson successfully voyaged to space on Sunday aboard a rocket built by his own Blue Origin competitor, Virgin Galactic. SpaceX’s Elon Musk, meanwhile, was there to cheer Branson on, and he’s already purchased a ticket on one of Branson’s future spaceflights.
The gift, announced Wednesday afternoon, is the largest ever received by the Smithsonian since it was established in 1846. (The founding gift from British philanthropist James Smithson would be worth about $310 million in today’s dollars, says Bunch.) Bezos has donated to the Smithsonian previously, including a $1 million-plus founding gift to the Museum of African American History, which opened on D.C.’s National Mall in 2016.
Blue Origin’s charitable foundation, Club for the Future, also announced $1 million donations to 19 other organizations that aim to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM, with a special focus on space. The beneficiaries included the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, founded by Project Mercury astronauts, and Challenger Center, created by the families of crew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger flight that ended in tragedy in 1986.
Bezos is currently the world’s richest person, with a net worth of $177 billion, per Forbes’ estimates. As of last summer, he had donated less than 1% of his fortune to charitable causes, ranking him far below more benevolent billionaires like Warren Buffett and George Soros. Bezos stepped down as Amazon’s CEO earlier this month—handing the reins to his protege Andy Jassy—and got $10 billion richer as the government canceled a contract with Microsoft that Amazon had been fighting.
Bezos’ philanthropist ex-wife Mackenzie Scott (the world’s 22nd richest person, worth an estimated $62.2 billion) is also a museum supporter. Last month, she announced donations to places including Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and New York’s Museum of Chinese in America as part of her latest blockbuster, $2.7 billion giving spree.