How will we buy things when we live in space?

by | Mar 9, 2015

Space tourism is costly business. Already Virgin Galactic has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into creating its commercial space program. And a ticket to space comes at a hefty price. Of course, you will have to pay for a ticket in dollars or some other earth-based currency.

But let’s say space tourism take off. In the distant future, what will we use as money in the cosmos?

I traveled to over 25 countries while researching my book Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. I didn’t go to space, but I still discovered some intriguing ideas as to what could function as space currency.

On first thought—maybe we could still use earth-based money, as there is plenty of it in circulation. Because it might initially be difficult to print bills and mint coins in space, we could transport money into space, placing it into orbiting pods that function as ATMs so that space tourists and merchants could use it. But researchers say that earth-based money wouldn’t be ideal. Crisp paper bills and heavy metal coins could pose a safety hazard to space tourists, puncturing protective gear. And credit cards wouldn’t work because the space radiation would harm the magnetic strips that store payment information. But there are many possibilities of what could function as space currency. Here are but a few:


In 2007, foreign exchange company Travelex declared that it would make a space currency known as the “Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination,” or QUID. It was largely a marketing ploy, which was dismissed as simply, a “poker chip with nice rounded edges.” But the mockups can at least help us imagine how space currency might look: QUIDs were round discs with colorful centers and tracking codes in order to prevent counterfeiting. Importantly, they don’t have sharp ridges and seem easy to handle.

A new rare metal

In Star Wars, the prevailing currency is the “Galactic Credit Standard” that was controlled by the InterGalactic Business Clan (IGBC) that oversaw the monetary system. These credits are backed by a material found on a moon that belonged to the IGBC. Even in this far-off galaxy, a “hard” commodity is integral to the monetary system. In some regions of the galaxy, another material known as latinum functioned as currency. As humans voyage through space, we may find a rare material that could function as a new type of currency, similar to how gold circulated as money throughout many different earth-bound societies. And if you think it’s crazy to take science fiction seriously, consider that the first mention of a credit card was in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887, a book published in the 19th century, about a man who falls asleep and wakes up over 100 years later.

Distributed money

When considering space currency, the most important dimension is that of time. Here on earth, we are accustomed to quick and easy transactions. Swipe your credit card, and goodbye. But in space, the distances that information must travel are far greater: sending a signal from Venus to Earth is much further than from Vietnam to England. That’s why it makes sense to use hard commodities like a new rare metal as money. If we want quick and digital transactions, science writer Brian Dodson says that we would have to build a distributed network through the galaxy. In other words, there would need to be servers or relay stations on various planets and moons throughout space to cut the information transmission lag. Even then it’s not clear how quickly information could be processed or who would foot the exorbitant bill to build such a network. This distributed network could authenticate transactions, similar to how the bitcoin blockchain verifies dealings. Dodson even has a diagram of how a distributed internet network might look in space.

Togetherness in space

Here on earth, currencies represent the nations and societies in which they are made. They are reminders of who we are and who we are not. Indeed, the creation of a widely-circulating space currency is still many years in the making. However, if we all dealt in one intergalactic currency, it might help us look past the national borders that once divided us. A space currency might be a reminder that we should face the final frontier with a united front.

[This article was also published in Quartz]