Money: The Final Frontier

Saturday July 4, 2009

To many of us, space travel seems a very long way off indeed.  Increasingly, we are being told that we should not fly and that we should be very aware of our carbon footprint.

Everywhere we turn, we are getting the message almost too often that we need to think about how we travel and what we do.  We are also being told that oil prices are going to continue getting higher and basically some people may not be able to afford the gas for their automobiles.

All this talk about the environment and how we must all collectively work together to save it, may make space travel seem like a distant dream, however, it may happen sooner than we think and within the next few years.

And if space travel happens then space travelers will need some money to use, when they undertake their journeys to the final frontier.  As a result, scientists have actually developed a brand new currency, which is designed to be perfect for any inter planetary traveler.


The new currency is called the Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination.  This is commonly referred to by the acronym QUID or as it has been written, Quid.

The British often refer to their British pound as the quid and it is a commonly used expression throughout the British Isles.  If you ask somebody how much something costs, they may reply “50 quid”.  There is no plural for quid; something can be 1 quid or 50 quid.  But the name ‘quid’ is actually the only thing that the British pound and the new Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination have in common.  The new ‘quid’ is a completely different concept and is very much the space age version of money.

The new Quid is actually a coin.  It has been very carefully designed, so that it can actually tolerate the conditions in which it will be used.  Since the coin is specifically designed for space travel, it is round and has no sharp edges.  Obviously any sharp edge could be very hazardous in space, mainly because if it fell and hit someone, then a sharp edge could cause a serious amount of damage, despite there being no gravity in space.

The lack of gravity also means that the coin has to be heavy enough to be handled by someone.  It cannot be too wispy, but conversely, it cannot be too heavy.  So even this aspect of the coin took a long time to design.

Why will coins be used in space?

Developing coins to be used in space may seem like a retrograde step.  After all, we are now living in a very developed age and we have all kinds of electronic means that we can use to make payments or to acquire cash.  If space travel happens, then we will have even developed the technology to enable this to happen, so why go back to using a system of currency that has been around for all of history?

Wouldn't it be better to have some kind of cashless society in space rather than having to rely on some kind of money?

Well, herein lies the problem.  Obviously you would think that it makes sense to have some kind of electronic swipe card that you could use in space, in order to make any purchases or charge something up to your account.  But the reality is that when you were in space you would find that the cosmic radiation you would encounter, would actually render the magnetic strip in a credit card or debit card, completely useless.

The anti-counterfeiting techniques used in the production of paper banknotes, would also potentially be wiped out by cosmic radiation (which is a bit of a scary thought) and so a whole new currency had to be devised or at least was devised to counteract this ‘problem’.

One of the main problems faced by scientists was the fact that so few people have actually traveled to space, that it is difficult to know exactly what happens ‘up there’.  It is very easy to read the theory, but there are always some differences between the theory and the reality of any situation and once people are introduced to situations, they tend to act in ways that you would not anticipate.

This means that it is extremely difficult to be able to design something that can take into account all the possible scenarios that may be encountered in space. 

Scientists even had to think about how and when the money would actually be used, to give them some idea about how best it should be progressed.

So this was no currency that was designed overnight, by someone who just thought that it was a good idea.  It was a long process that had to take various factors into account and some of them were relatively unknown.  The work was actually undertaken by scientists from the University of Leicester in England and scientists from the National Space Centre.  Travelex, a foreign exchange company actually commissioned the new currency, because it wants to be ready and waiting when space travel happens.  It did not want to wait until people were actually going to space, instead it wanted to equip them with the money that they would need when they are in space.

The concept began after work began in the US, on a new space hotel, which will be inflatable.   This was combined with the British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, actively starting work on his Virgin Galactic space ship, known as Spaceship 2.

He has very confidently stated that space travel will be much more accessible by the year 2012 and even more readily available by 2015.  In addition, the National Space Centre has indicated that it too, feels that space travel will become more accessible by 2012 and it even confidently predicts that there will be a full range of tourist facilities available on the Moon by 2050.

So, if people were going to start travelling to space then they would need something to spend up there and the concept of credit cards and cash was simply out of the question, so it posed quite a challenge for the scientists who came up with the idea.  They really didn’t know just how they were going to set about doing it.

Perhaps the scariest concept that they had to deal with, is what would happen if the coin was accidentally lost and left the spaceship or space hotel?  Would it end up acting like some kind of mini meteor and come hurtling through space and hit some poor old Martian or human as it re-entered?

So, even the materials for the currency had to be carefully chosen.  Eventually scientists decided on polymer, because polymer is not too heavy so it wouldn’t ‘hit’ someone as a free floating coin, but it was firm enough that it could be held by people.

This may sound like the scientists were being somewhat pedantic, but in fact this is quite an issue.  If you have something that is lightweight enough not to cause a hazard, there is still a risk that it would be very difficult for a human to hold onto when they are in space and they are holding it and getting used to all kinds of things, zero gravity being just one of them.  So the last thing that scientists wanted was for all the ‘space money’ to simply fly away whenever people wanted to pay for something.  Hence the use of polymer.

Polymer may seem like a new concept to most of us, but it is a surface well known to all of us, because it is used in non-stick pans.

The coins then had to be designed in terms of their shape.  They could not be square or rectangular, because obviously these would have very sharp edges and would present a very real danger, if one of the coins hit someone.  It is actually very difficult for scientists to know just how much damage would be inflicted by the edge of a coin hitting someone, but on the other hand any accident that happens in space would be very difficult to deal with, because the nearest hospital is obviously a very long way away.  In addition it would be very difficult to take someone back to earth if they had been injured.  Space travel is difficult enough for people who are fit and well, but for people who may be losing blood or are injured, it is potentially quite dangerous.

So it isn't a straightforward case of just designing something that you think looks good, it has to be practical as well. 

The decision for the currency to be round was a fairly obvious one since this would negate the risk of a sharp corner.  However, even a round coin can do damage if it were to hit someone, so eventually someone came up with the idea of making it with moulded edges and in this way, it could safely be used in all conditions.

What do the coins look like?

The coins vary in size.  They are basically transparent and each has its denomination clearly marked on them, for example 5 quid and so on.  They don't resemble standard coins, because they have been made from polymer and they are basically translucent.

These scientists have not yet indicated whether or not they have incorporated anti-counterfeiting measures into the new coinage.  We can only hope that they have done so, because if space travel does take-off in the next few years and the coins are used, it is likely that someone will try to counterfeit them.

In 2007, the quid was valued at $13.50 to 1 quid.

Publicity stunt or demonstrable need ?

Many people felt when the quid was launched in 2007, said it was simply a publicity stunt on behalf of Travelex, who obviously got quite a lot of publicity as a result of the launch.

They have launched the new quid as a means of highlighting some of the issues that may well arise, if and when space travel actually happens.

However, the new quid has been launched by a private company and there is no reason why other companies or governments may not launch their own space money.   Although Travelex would want every traveler going to space to use their currency, other countries may wish to use their own particular space money.

Space is obviously a difficult area in terms of legality.  Do patents apply on the Moon and other such strange questions arise on this kind of subject.

Some people felt that the introduction of a new space currency was actually an irrelevance.  They argued that it would be perfectly reasonable for people to pay their space travel company a sum of money prior to travel.  This money would then be used whilst up in space and a tally could be kept by the resort staff on the Moon.  When people returned to Earth, they would receive a refund on any money that they had not spent and if they owed money, then they could simply pay it upon their return.

This would alleviate the need for any cash and would actually be a much more straightforward system, since people would be paying in advance and to some extent it would be an all-inclusive deal.  So people did not really need to use cash.

Given that space travel may well happen in the next 5-10 years, it could well be the case that people are venturing into space for the first time.  However, it will actually be a very expensive process for some time to come.  Early indications are that flights may cost as much as $200,000.

This price may actually escalate given, the fact that oil prices are going up and the cost of space travel may be forced to rise.
In addition, the accessibility of space travel for almost everyone was first mooted prior to the credit crunch hitting the United States and subsequently most of the rest of the world.  So people, who may have been able to afford $200,000, by making a few cutbacks and generally being prudent with their money, may well not be able to afford it now.

As a result, it is reasonable to think that whilst space travel may happen, it is likely to remain exclusive for some time to come.  Thus Russian billionaires and American millionaires may well be able to afford space travel, but for ordinary people, it will be some time in the future before a trip to the moon is possible.

The fact that space travel will be an exclusive activity for the foreseeable future, actually alleviate the need for money to be used in space.  If someone can pay at least $200,000 for a flight into space, then surely it would be reasonable to ask them for a deposit of $10,000, as a down-payment, to cover their expenses once they are in space.

There is however, some kind of psychological appeal with regard to the new quid.  Although the people who may be travelling into space will be quite wealthy, if tourist facilities are developed, then they may want some loose change to be able to buy a postcard and send it back from the moon.

However, this may require even further development for the scientists at the National Space Centre, because a postage stamp may be required to send postcards back.

So to some extent, the development of the new quid does seem to have an air of publicity seeking about it.  But on the other hand, it has raised some serious issues about how people will actually be able to cope in space and some of the issues that may arise about safety and space travel generally.

Despite environmentalists’ concerns, space travel in at least some form may well happen within the next 5 to 10 years.  It may be that only the super wealthy can afford it, at this point.  However, experts are confident that once trips into space start, demand will increase and as demand increases, then the cost of each flight will go down, which eventually will make it far cheaper for everyone.

Whether or not this happens, has yet to be seen.  Certainly there are no physical or technological reasons why it may not happen.  And environmentally?  Well environmentally, there is also no reason why it cannot happen.  Although current methods of space travel may not be the most environmentally friendly means of travel, it is likely that scientists will be able to come up with some form of fuel that can safely launch a space ship and take it to the moon and back.  Thus environmental reasons should not be viewed as a barrier to space travel, they just pose different ways of looking at things.  After all, if more people are working on the moon by 2050, then couldn’t this ease the overcrowding problems we have on Earth?  Just as long as everyone who is up there looks after their quids!