Maybe it’s a just because Elon Musk used to work there, but PayPal is kicking off a space payments program that’s half stunt, half serious.
The plan is to start putting in place the tools needed to deal with payments problems that might arise, say, five years from now when you take one of Musk’s SpaceX capsules (Virgin Galatic’s spacecraft don’t fly high enough, sadly) to a hotel operating out of one of Bigelow Airspace’s expanding space stations. How will you pay for booze and cigarettes in the galactic version of a duty free shop?
We may be bullish on the space economy, but this strikes us as trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. And yet, it’s the ultimate fantasy of digital money purveyors.
Which is to say, there’s no reason why the existing financial system can’t work in space. There probably won’t be hard cash up there, as the PayPal team points out. But the International Space Station, for example, is 270 kilometers above the earth. That’s closer to earth than New York is to London, and yet we have no trouble navigating electronic payments between currencies and across distances like that. In the same way, it’s should be a fairly straightforward technical challenge to connect via satellite PayPal’s terrestrial payments system–or that of any of its competitors—to space stations, space craft and other earth orbit infrastructure.
That PayPal’s partner in this mission is the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) is telling. SETI is a non-profit doing important research on astronomy and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, but it doesn’t do business or actually go into space. In announcing its plans, PayPal also said it will be supporting a crowdfunding campaign for SETI, but it’s not clear what that has to do with payments.
Convening stakeholders to talk about the financial infrastructure of space isn’t a terrible idea, if only to arrange practicalities and protocols. There are legal questions surrounding the private sector’s expansion into space. The legalities are similar to those of international jurisdictions like the sea or perhaps Antaractica, but there is far less precedent for how to manage property rights of salvaged satellites than there is for, say, ships. Still, as long as most space companies are registered as terrestrial corporations, they’ll mostly follow existing rules—and use existing currency.
If the space business gets off the ground, and particularly goes inter-planetary, companies might need a more free floating—pun intended—monetary and legal atmosphere. PayPal points to plans by a Dutch upstart to settle Mars as soon as 2023, but that effort is a long shot. Any real planetary settlements are decades in the future, but the greater distances will require different banking accommodations. In a way, this is what bitcoin was built for: An all-digital currency independent of physical substance or governments would be great in space, setting aside some of bitcoin’s fundamental economic problems.
That is likely what PayPal is dreaming about, beyond the short-term public relations boost that comes with associating your company with space, however nebulous the connection may be. If your company’s dream is to be the future of payments, the idea of a high-tech playground unrestrained by government rules, at least temporarily, is surely irresistible.