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Inspiration4 and the quest to cure childhood cancer

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The Inspiration4 crew has lifted off onboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. By the time the gentle reader sees that it will likely have already returned to Earth after one of the most unusual and heartwarming space missions ever undertaken.

Most people have seen those St. Jude’s Research Hospital commercials. The children — many with hair gone from chemotherapy, their voices halt and raspy from the struggle to stay alive before their lives have well begun — have the ability to tear out the heart. Cancer, next to Alzheimer’s, is the cruelest of diseases. It takes life slowly, painfully, with the treatment at times almost as bad as the disease. It is horrible for anyone to have to endure it and doubly horrible when the patient is a child.

Inspiration4 is the brainchild of Jared Isaacman, who made his billions by founding a company called Shift4 Payments, which processes retail payments. His idea was to buy a space mission from SpaceX, including the use of a SpaceX Dragon, to raise money for St. Jude’s. Isaacman is also an accomplished pilot.

Isaacman is joined by Chris Sembroski, a data engineer who acquired a seat because a friend, who had won it in a lottery of doners transferred it to him. They are joined by Dr. Sian Proctor, a geology professor and science communicator, and Haley Arceneaux, a physician’s assistant at St. Jude’s.

Arceneaux’s backstory is especially poignant. Arceneaux was once herself a patient at St. Jude’s, suffering from bone cancer. The hospital and its staff of health care professionals saved her life so that she could grow up to help other children to live and now to fly in space.

The crew represents the qualities of leadership (Isaacman), generosity (Sembroski), prosperity (Proctor) and hope (Arceneaux.) They lifted off with the plan to fly in Earth orbit for three days, before splashing down in the Atlantic.

The praise for Inspiration4 has been near universal. The spaceflight is one of the few feel-good stories in a news cycle filled with disaster and mendacity. However, an exception likely exists.

It should be noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has not, to anyone’s knowledge, offered any snarky comments about the flight of Inspiration 4. His silence is telling despite his well-known disdain for billionaires flying in space. Isaacman, who bought the space flight, and Elon Musk, who sold it to him, are both billionaires. 

Sanders likely has another objection to Inspiration4. According to the Washington Examiner, Sanders has expressed opposition to private charity going back to his days as mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the early 1980s. As a “democratic socialist” Sanders believes that government should be the purveyor of all social services, including health care. Under his preferred system, not only would the money the wealthy use to fund private philanthropy be taxed away but hospitals like St. Jude’s, which largely subsists on private donations, would be nationalized into Medicare for All (it should be noted he has not singled out St. Jude in particular). That development would be a tragedy. Parents of children who are treated at St. Jude’s do not have to pay anything, a better deal than any government-run healthcare.

Since capitalism persists as America’s economic system, the flight of Inspiration4 took place. The mission will not only raise money for children’s cancer research, but it will also provide some valuable medical data on the effects of space flight on the human body. The crew of the Inspiration4 did not spend all their time looking out at the glories of heaven and Earth through the transparent cupola SpaceX has installed on the Crew Dragon.

Each of the astronauts wore an Apple watch that collected biomedical data such as EKGs, heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, as well as external data such as light and cabin noise. The astronauts used a Butterfly IQ ultrasound device connected to an iPhone to scan their internal organs during the spaceflight. Finally, the crew used an app stored on an iPad to take cognitive tests before, during and after the mission.

The ultrasound test will determine whether an ordinary person with minimal training can take ultrasound images that can then be transmitted to a physician for evaluation. Ordinarily, ultrasounds are taken by a highly trained technician at a clinic or hospital. A home ultrasound device would be a boon for remote medicine.

Inspiration4 proves that space travel can provide solutions to problems on Earth. If the mission advances the day when all childhood cancers can be cured, billionaires flying in space proved that they could address problems on Earth with more alacrity than virtue-signaling politicians.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Bernie Sanders billionaires Cancer research Elon Musk Health care Jared Isaacman Space travel SpaceX Inspiration4 St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

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