NEW YORK (MainStreet)—When the California Gold Rush began in 1848, one of the biggest outcomes was the establishment of the railroads that still exist today. Towns flourished, schools and churches were opened and trade quadrupled all throughout the country, especially in the West. When it comes to exploration, not much is left on this planet. But why stop here? If you were to take the words of Star Trek Enterprise seriously, Space is the "Final Frontier."
As we human beings try to extend our reach to outer space, terms like "Space Tourism" and "Asteroid Mining" are being bandied about. Could Space Tourism be the next gold rush? But one thing we can be assured of is, with the emergence of such futuristic ambitions, the dawn of new commercial or financial tools cannot be far behind.
Enter, PayPal Galactic – a mode of money transfer for people who are out in space. The reactions to such an unconventional venture can range from utter disbelief to hope for intergalactic trade opportunities, depending on the way you think. It is, obviously, not as simple as it sounds, and the practical date for launching such a venture is still far off. But the fact that PayPal has already drawn out maps to make such a endeavor possible is exciting enough in itself.
The PayPal Story on Earth
A quick look at the history of PayPal reveals how it has achieved an unprecedented amount of success in online money transfer in the last fifteen years. Safe and secure online purchases without having to reveal your personal financial information – that is what PayPal offers to over 106 million account holders. Just like Xerox has come to be synonymous with photocopying, PayPal has achieved the same stature in online money transfer. New updates also include a PayPal card that can be physically swiped at merchant stores just like credit and debit cards.
If you think that PayPal's ambition to make online money transfers from a cashless outer space possible is a bit too ambitious, you can have the honor of being part of the next generation of naysayers; the original ones thought it was impossible to transfer money online without using your personal bank details. But forget all conceptions of "near impossibility." If Commander Chris Hadfield can belt out a near perfect acoustic rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" from the International Space Station and then stream it to the world online, an intergalactic monetary transaction system using PayPal tools is not improbable in the future.
The Timing of this Initiative
The question that naturally presents itself to us is "why now?"
"With the latest developments happening in the Space Vehicle projects, Paypal, together with [Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence] SETI and Space Tourism Society, has taken the initiative to build space commerce with Paypal Galactic and this is the right time to do it," said Anuj Nayar, senior director of communications and Social Media for PayPal.
Endorsed by Big Names
When the announcement for PayPal Galactic was made on June 27 this year, legendary spaceman Buzz Aldrin was present to endorse the plan. Another endorsement is from Space Tourism Society, an organization with the goals of conducting research, building public outer space exploration desire, and acquiring the financial and political power to make space tourism available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible.
The Space Tourism calendar
The space tourism calendar too, shows quite a busy schedule for the near future. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is set to be the first commercial space flight for paying tourists. The first flight is set to be launched on Christmas Day this year. When tourist flights are in place, how can hotels be far behind? In April 2011, Russian company Orbital Technologies revealed plans of a space that would orbit the earth and would provide guests with never-seen-before views of both the Earth and outer space from their pods or "rooms." The company plans to get the venture running by 2016. "With space tourism being a huge part of space travel in the near future, PayPal's initiative to jump into the scene could not in fact have been timed better", says John Spencer, director and founder of Space Tourism Society.
Astronauts or Astro-have-nots?
The second arc to the "why now?" question deals with the purchasing power of people who are actually out there working on space stations and other research based ventures. An astronaut who leaves his home back on earth for spending months on end in a space station orbiting the Earth, does not spend all that time working out there. That would simply drive him crazy. Leisure time is included in his daily routine. Space can be a lonely place and anything that helps pass the time is worth more out there than it is back on Earth. This includes music, books and games.
What's more, there's only so much a person can carry out there. For a mission that would last months, the option of buying new mp3s and e-books would definitely be a welcome idea.
If they had an option of being able to manage these expenses from out there, it would indeed make things easy for our spacemen. This is what PayPal Galactic also addresses, and more importantly it is this area where the plan seems feasible. "We are currently witnessing Space Renaissance and logical progression into the futuristic space is all that we need," says Spencer.
Who owns outer space? Who can govern its commercialization? The answer will change depending on who's asking this question. We as Earthlings, who are bound by certain laws and treaties and agreed in 1967 through the Outer Space Treaty that outer space or any celestial region of exploration belongs to mankind as a whole and not to any particular individual, group, state or country.
PayPal vs. Bitcoin Debate
So if a merchant were to establish, say, a cafe or a mall in a colony in Mars, what gives him the authority to earn profit in a region that nobody really owns? If establishing new worlds and societies is the goal, then have we already agreed that the economies in those worlds would be money based?
There are schools of thought here that propose resource based economies over monetary ones. One example would be the Zeitgeist Movement that addresses how monetary economies spell doom for future generations as their roots are based on private ownership.
As rosy as a resource based economy sounds, the truth is the people who are trying their best to establish colonies out in space are products of the current form of money-based economy that has so far existed here on Earth. They know how it works, the nitty-gritty of all involved, and in case there are holes in financial processes or tools of money transfer, they can use their expertise of monetary economics to plug them before such initiatives are launched. If a resource-based economy were a feasible option, then online currencies like Bitcoins would have been a good alternative, in which PayPal could even team up with the Bitcoin system just like they do with banks all over the world.
But here's the crux of the problem that would arise due to such a possibility – say we do successfully set up viable data communications with a satellite in orbit strictly meant for financial transactions – if it were Bitcoin based, such an entity would be beyond the control or jurisdiction of nation states and ultimately be a Wild West playground for illegal activities.
Nayar also adds, "We need to create few questions and answer them. What regulation checks do we need to keep track of? What could be tax issues and legal consequences? What would the banking and transaction system be like? What about fraud and theft management? For the space commerce to take off, we need to figure out the best technology. On Earth we do it through IP addresses, but how do we do it in Space?
This means that an initiative like PayPal Galactic is still at least a decade and a half away from fully operational services. But the initiative has been started, and that is what that really matters now.
--Written by Preetam Kaushik