SpaceMoneyWhether it will be in just a matter of years or of decades, the possibility of regular people taking trips into space the same way they travel to the far reaches of the globe could become a reality within our lifetime. The question is: when you set off for such a trip, what do you pack along for money?

While previous generations may have packed travelers’ cheques, such paper relics just don’t seem to fit in with the space age. The only feasible solution to the problem of payments in, to, and from space, is a digital one. But that answer raises a number of other questions about the future state of money.

On June 27th, David Marcus, President of PayPal marked the 15th anniversary of the online payment system with the announcement of PayPal Galactic. He spoke at the SETI institute in Mountain View, California. Follow-up speakers included a number of space experts, most notably, the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. You can view the full video of the announcement held in California here, or a much shorter explanatory video below:

The partnership between SETI – a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach – and the very much for profit company owned by the publicly traded eBay appears somewhat surprising at first blush. However, Jill Tarter, the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for the SETI Institute, insists that the two entities are well matched to foster innovation together:

PayPal envisions exploring possibilities in space the way that we do, breaking boundaries to make real progress.  When the SETI Institute succeeds in its exploration of the universe, and as we find our place among the stars, PayPal will be there to facilitate commerce, so people can get what they need, and want, to live outside of our planet.

While we may still think of galactic payments as the credit system used to allow trade between inhabitants of different planets in Star Trek, those behind the PayPal Galactic system insist this is not a matter of science fiction but of reality.

We already have a situation in which astronauts stay on space stations for extended periods of time during which they may have to pay for purchases, whether they download files for their own entertainment while in space, or pay their mortgage and utility bills for their homes on earth.

Granted that is a small handful of people, but Marcus insists that the necessity will arise for a lot more in the near future because space travel on a consumer level is imminent. In his presentation, he refers to the first commercial space flight scheduled for December and a plan to establish a space hotel in three years. These innovations, he said, raise a number of questions, and the first one is: “What currency would we use in space?”

Anticipating that PayPal could provide the answer, the PayPal Galactic site boldly states:

“We’re everywhere on Earth. Now we’re aiming for the final frontier.” It sounds very grand, but it is not quite true. While it does boast “a network of more than 193 countries and regions,” that does fall short of PayPal’s claim to be “everywhere on Earth.”

In fact, the restriction inherent in PayPal’s system is one of the reasons WordPress is cited for its decision to accept bitcoin payment. The aim of WordPress is to be accessible to people all over the world, and that is something that all existing currency systems, including PayPal, fail to achieve:

“PayPal alone blocks access from over 60 countries, and many credit card companies have similar restrictions. Some are blocked for political reasons, some because of higher fraud rates, and some for other financial reasons. Whatever the reason, we don’t think an individual blogger from Haiti, Ethiopia, or Kenya should have diminished access to the blogosphere because of payment issues they can’t control. Our goal is to enable people, not block them.” – WordPress.com

That kind of universality was part of the original PayPal vision. In The Education of a Libertarian, Peter Thiel wrote that “the founding vision of PayPal centered on the creation of a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were.” While PayPal went on to great success as a company, it did so by working within the existing financial systems, and so it remained subject to governmental regulations and restrictions.

Now to return to the questions Marcus posed. At the point when a monetary system for space appears to be on the horizon, we do have to consider if fiat currency, whose value is set by governing agencies and whose buying power is limited to specific geographic regions, makes any sense in the context of transactions off world. As indicated by the discussion PayPal is fostering on the Facebook page designated for galactic aspiration, the answer is clearly no. It includes assertions like this one:

So we have an assumption of what the money of the future won’t be, but what will it be? PayPal’s questions on that include the following:

  • What will our standard currency look like in a truly cash-free interplanetary society?
  • How will the banking systems have to adapt?
  • How will risk and fraud management systems need to evolve?
  • What regulations will we have to conform with?

These questions are very close to the ones already opened by the introduction of cryptocurrencies, which are designed to operate without physical limits. They also have to be able to be independent of banking structures that impede transfers or impose fees on transactions. (Banks already charge significant fees for wire transfers from one country to another. The amount they would impose for a transfer off earth would likely merit the term astronomical.) The key to an economy that works at an optimal level without charges for or delays on receipt of payment is a minimum of regulation. As for risk and fraud management, those are built into bitcoin’s block chain system.

That is not to say that PayPal must adopt bitcoin as its form of galactic payment but that it would make sense to look at a system of digital currency that already exists in planning what would work best for payments beyond Earth’s boundaries. If we are able to aspire to reach beyond our planet’s gravitational pull, we should certainly be able to break free of the grasp of earthbound fiat.

Image credit: Flickr

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