We’ve all heard the expression “blockchain can change the world.” But maybe that’s not ambitious enough. Why stop at Planet Earth?
Because for its next magic trick, blockchain is going to space.
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising because the overlap in the Venn diagram of Crypto Bros and Space Heads rivals that of Crypto and Burning Man. “These are very closely aligned groups,” says George Pullen, co-author of "Blockchain and The Space Economy." “If you are a blockchain devotee, then you have willingly projected forward a vision of the future that 95% to 99% of your peers don’t understand and don’t get. Space is the same way.”
The flashiest example is Elon Musk, whose tweets are a mix of SpaceX updates and jokes about dogecoin. And then there’s Jeff Garzik, an early Bitcoin Core developer who’s also the co-founder and CTO of SpaceChain, a project whose mission is to integrate space and blockchain technologies. “I’m a big sci-fi nerd,” says Garzik, who has been hooked on space ever since his father took him to Cape Canaveral back in the 1980s to watch NASA shuttle launches.
Thanks largely to the private sector’s surge of interest – what some call “Space Race 2.0” – Garzik predicts that within 10 years we’ll have Antarctica-style bases on the moon. Regular supply runs will keep these lunar bases stocked. “A three-day journey to the moon will be pretty normal,” he says. And once we have a true foothold on the moon it's just “another hop” to Mars because the shuttles will no longer need to fight earth’s gravity or atmosphere. “The moon in 10 [years], Mars in 20. That’s very realistic,” says Garzik.
So how does blockchain fit into all of this? “I am one of those first companies in the 1800s heading west, laying down railroad tracks,” says Garzik. “Blockchain is plumbing. Blockchain is infrastructure.” To mix the metaphors a bit, if Antarctica-style bases are to be built on the moon, then we’ll need the equivalent of cellphone towers to make those bases functional.
Every cellphone tower (or the space equivalent), every supply run to the moon, every launch of a satellite, and every video streamed from a Mars rover needs to be financed. In the glory days of the space race, that tab was paid for by NASA and the taxpayer. Today, the “space economy” is increasingly fueled by the private sector, and that capital doesn’t come from just one person. (Sorry, Elon.) “Not even billionaires want to write a check for a billion dollars,” says Garzik, explaining that space innovation will require a complicated system of fundraising, cooperation across multiple parties (who might not trust each other), and an alignment of economic incentives, which are all things at which blockchain is good.
SpaceChain’s network of smart contracts (using Ethereum) is designed to let multiple parties – potentially in adversarial countries – conduct transactions in that classic “trustless” feature of blockchain. “Blockchain is kind of a neutral referee between multiple parties,” says Garzik. “That’s the key concept that I like to worm into people’s brains.”
Space Race 2.0, says Pullen, might be less of a race than we think. “We keep seeing a narrative of ‘Space Race 2.0,' with people asking, is it going to be the U.S., China or Russia? That’s a story that makes people click but Space Race 2.0 is probably going to be a relay race, with people passing the baton back and forth,” he says, as the sprawling challenges will create a sharing economy. “And the best way to set up a sharing economy is with blockchain.” And then, if we succeed in setting up colonies in space? They will need a currency. “No dollar can survive the vacuum of space,” says Pullen. “No one’s taking dollars in space.” Bitcoin – or pick your favorite cryptocurrency – could be the logical solution.
Then there’s the flip side to this coin. While SpaceChain uses blockchain technology to advance space exploration, others are using space to improve blockchain technology. This brings us to Blockstream. Founded by longtime cypherpunk Adam Back (inventor of Hashcash, a precursor to Bitcoin), Blockstream’s network of satellites allows anyone, anywhere on the planet, to transact in bitcoin. No internet required.
Those new to bitcoin often ask the question, “What happens if the internet goes down?” After all, outages happen. Equipment can malfunction. So if the internet breaks? “There’s a Bitcoin satellite network broadcasting the bitcoin blockchain that continues to work, even when large parts of the internet are damaged and offline,” says Back. Or let’s imagine a nation with political strife, where an authoritarian government muzzles the internet. “In this event,” says Back, “being able to transact with bitcoin could become of critical importance to pay for daily goods in a disrupted market, where card networks may cease to function, or to pay for emergency transport to a less dangerous locale.”
Bitcoin-via-satellite offers a few other advantages. “Blockstream Satellite brings bitcoin users more privacy as it is a passive, receive-only service,” says Chris Cook, who heads up the Blockstream Satellite project. “Unlike with the Bitcoin [peer-to-peer] network, there are no other peers that can discover your IP address and potentially geo-locate your house address via mapping services.”
It could also improve energy consumption. Blockstream leverages its satellites for their own mining operations – both as a backup connection to the Bitcoin network, and for remote areas where they can’t connect to the internet. That could be a glimpse of the future. Blockstream eventually aims to launch a satellite-based mining service, which will let anyone run a mining farm in a remote location. “We hope this will allow miners to access stranded and isolated energy that may be unused, or used inefficiently,” says Cook. In theory, this could spark new investments in renewable energy. For example, if you have solar panels and a Blockstream satellite connection, you could mine bitcoin in the middle of the desert.
From the desert to the outer cosmos, it’s possible blockchain is ideally positioned to facilitate the new economics of space. One knock on blockchain is it’s a solution in search of a problem – a way to create an idyllic financial model when the old one still kind of works, more or less. Banks have their flaws but the system is functional, or at least quasi-functional for many. But in outer space? There’s no economic model yet. In space there is, quite literally, a void.
Why couldn’t that void be filled by blockchain? This could be, as Garzik puts it, “science fiction becoming science fact.”