PayPal says outer space is its next frontier

Space architect John Spencer has a grand vision for the future of space travel — one with luxury space yachts and hotels, and dune buggy racing on the moon.

Astronaut Eugene Cernan on the moon from 1972. If tourists are next, how will they pay?
(Credit: NASA/Harrison H Schmitt)

It's all going to happen in the "not-too-distant future", the founder of the Space Tourism Society told CNET recently.

"The more people who go, the more diversity, the more things you can do — the more they need to buy goods and services," he said. "It's limited to what they can do now because of the cost and limited time on-board the space system, but that's going to grow as we have more facilities and more people."

Travel to the final frontier has heated up in the last decade, and everybody wants a piece of the action. Billionaires like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk are pouring their resources into space tourism (most of these guys are also sponsoring the Space Tourism Society to help promote space travel).

As Spencer put it, the time for the "space renaissance", an uber-luxury travel experience, is upon us. And, eventually, people will need a way to pay for it all.

That's where PayPal wants to come in. The tech company is working with Spencer, and organisations like NASA and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), to launch a galactic money transfer initiative in hopes of shaping what spending money in space will look like. Spencer will join PayPal, famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin, NASA and SETI at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, on Thursday to kick off the discussion.

PayPal CEO David Marcus said there has yet to be a discussion about how people will make payments from space. Currently, NASA provides a team of people to help astronauts pay bills and make purchases while they are travelling in space, according to Marcus.

"There's about thousand people on Earth, literally a thousand people, who look after the astronaut on the ground," he said.

Although the satellites that help us make those payments electronically are located in space, it's not as simple as people may think, and there are a lot of questions, Marcus said. Companies still need to develop a process, and governments need to decide on regulations and what unit of currency space travellers will use.

"If you bring your phone, what network do you connect to? Which mobile carry will bring mobile payments to space and how? A lot of these questions need to be answered and that's why we are doing this," he said.

While it may seem far away, Marcus said space tourism, and the need to pay for things in space, is rapidly approaching as the price of a seat on a spaceship continues to drop.

The first man to travel to space as a tourist, Dennis Tito, paid US$20 million in 2001. Celebrities, paying US$200,000 apiece, are lined up for Virgin Galactic's maiden voyage, which is expected as early as next year. And a couple of companies in Canada were recently promoting more, uh, affordable space travel options, ranging between roughly US$95,000 and US$140,000. Russian firm Orbital Technologies has said it will open a space hotel in 2016.

"You're in the space hotel three years from now, and you want to buy your morning coffee," Marcus said. "What government is going to regulate that purchase?"

Although Marcus said he wants the conversation to be all inclusive, which means he welcomes the participation of competitors like Square and Intuit, making the first leap of faith is probably a good way to be seen as a pioneer in uncharted waters.

Spencer is glad that PayPal has taken up the torch to start the discussions. Those conversations will get at his big picture for the world beyond Earth. He said some of this new infrastructure can be modelled after maritime law, which lets governments decide on the boundaries out at sea, but there needs to be laws tailored to outer space. He knows it won't be as big as the cruise line industry, since most people won't be able to afford it — in this century, at least — but it will be a lucrative, and wondrous, type of vacation. And somebody will have to figure out how to pay for it.


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