PayPal goes galactic

03 Jul 2013

ITEM: PayPal celebrated its 15th anniversary by launching an initiative to enable electronic payments between planets.

No, really. It’s called PayPal Galactic, and it was launched last week in partnership with the SETI Institute. The goal: enable a functional off-Earth payment system.

PayPal president David Marcus points to the advent of space tourism as a driver for extraterrestrial payments. Granted, space tourism in the near future will be mainly in the form of suborbital flights, not trips to Mars or the moon – so we’re really talking about apps like duty-free shopping in zero gravity.

But John Spencer, founder and president of the Space Tourism Society (which is also participating in the initiative), says space tourism will evolve faster than you might think: “Within five to ten years the earliest types of ‘space hotels’ and orbital and lunar commerce will be operational and in need of a payment system.”

PayPal president David Marcus says all of this raises questions on how payments are settled outside of Earth, from what will be used as currency, how banking systems will have to adapt, risk and fraud management issues, regulatory issues and customer support.

“One thing is clear, we won't be using cash in space,” Marcus said in a statement.

If that sounds like a publicity stunt … well, it is, to a point.

To be sure, the PayPal Galactic initiative is real, and it’s not just for the Mars colonies of the future. PayPal argues that astronauts on space stations, for example, also need to pay bills back on earth and buy digital entertainment like music and e-books.

Apart from that, it’s hard to know how serious to take this. According to

It's important to start this lengthy and involved process now, Marcus said, because private spaceflight is set to open the final frontier up to the masses soon.

The thing is that by “masses” he means people rich enough to pay at least $95,000 per ticket. And even “soon” is a relative term – five years ago, people were predicting that the first space hotel would be open for business in 2012.

Still, Marcus is right about one thing – even if space tourism doesn’t happen for another ten years, it’s probably a good idea to start thinking of the practical and logistical issues involved in an offworld payment system now.

After all, look how long it’s taken to develop a global mobile payment system here on Earth.

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