On the face of it, it may seem utterly ludicrous, but PayPal, the San Jose, California based online payment processing company has announced that it wants to be a leader in the nascent field of interplanetary commerce. Indeed, PayPal, which is owned by the Internet’s dominant online auction site eBay has disclosed via press reports that the company is presently working with both the Space Tourism Society and the SETI Institute to develop a new program known as “PayPal Galactic”. According to company officials, PayPal Galactic is intended to be the world’s most trusted solution for managing the problem of making and collecting payments in space.
This is no joke. As PayPal President David Marcus so affirms: “As leaders in online payments, it’s kind of our duty to lead the way on how commerce in space will happen. This is a big problem that needs to be solved.” Mr. Marcus acknowledges that space commerce as we might imagine it is “at least a decade in the future.” Making credit card payments in outer space safe and secure may not be what keeps most people up and night, but it is comforting to know that somebody out there is working on the problem.
Respecting the reader’s need for some background and context as to why this news item should be regarded as plausible, we need to delve a bit into the company history of the Internet’s main payment processing colossus. PayPal as we know it today came about by way of a merger between Confinity Inc. and organization known as X.com. One of X.com’s original co-founders is Mr. Elon Musk. Musk is probably best known for bringing into the world SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) and Tesla Motors. SpaceX is a space transportation company that does real space business. In 2012, the organization became the first for profit-company to send actual cargo into space. One of its rockets was contracted to carry a payload all the way to the International Space Station. Apparently, Mr. Musk’s enthusiasm for space travel knows no bounds, and soon (in perhaps a decade or two) we will have the means to make and accept electronic payments outside of the earth’s orbit.
As preposterous as it may seem to us today, there is a case to be made for making the development of extraterrestrial commerce a reality. Sir Richard Branson, chairman and founder of the Virgin Group started Virgin Galactic in 2004 and gave it a mission to sell tickets to well-to-do space tourists everywhere. At present, Virgin Galactic stands ready to provide suborbital launch service for science missions and orbital launch service for delivery of communications satellites. Branson’s spaceships are real, and they do fly. They are launched from large fixed-wing aircraft rather than from a launch pad. This gives his ships more speed and altitude than ground-launched rockets. If his project becomes a success there is no telling what kinds of things future space travelers will want or need to buy when they take off. It’s not a stretch to believe that firms like Virgin Galactic will discover some way to connect the mobile devices of their passengers to the earth’s existing cell networks. If this happens, then the downloading of digital goods and content in space would indeed be possible and perhaps even profitable.