Astronauts have some pretty neat opportunities off-Earth. They’ve recorded music videos and can even vote from space. Surely something as routine as paying taxes would just be taken care of, right? It turns out there is no means of filing your taxes from space. American astronauts file their taxes just like everyone else, and traveling to space doesn’t give you any extra perks or extensions from the IRS. If you won’t be able to have someone else submit your taxes while you’re away, you better file early or get an extension before you launch.
This might sound like a non-issue, but in 1970 astronaut Jack Swigert found himself in space having forgotten to file his taxes. As you might remember from the movie Apollo 13, Captain Swigert was pulled onto the mission to replace another astronaut at the last minute. You can’t blame him for forgetting, and it turned out to be quite an eventful week for him. It happened again in 2005 when Leroy Chaio found himself on the ISS at tax time. On sMars, our American crew members have the same tax obligations as anyone else in the US. Since we don’t have timely access to the internet or mail service, I chose to file for an extension before the mission started. I will admit, I was tempted to request an extension for being “out of the country” because what could be further outside the US than Mars? In any case, I’ll refile my taxes this fall since I’ll return home before the extension ends.
But what would actually happen on a long duration or indefinite length mission further into space, like living in a Martian colony? Certainly someone like Elon Musk would continue to earn money through his investments on Earth even while he’s living off-planet, continuing his tax obligations even if he never returned to Earth. This may be a uniquely American problem; many countries don’t require their citizens to file paperwork for their taxes if they aren’t earning an income there. Some countries don’t require their citizens to file tax paperwork at all! However, American citizens are required to file a tax form every year. Even if you haven’t lived in the US that year, Uncle Sam insists that you submit your forms if you still hold citizenship and earned taxable income. Filing taxes online in the US can be easier, but it’s still a bit of a pain if you have to collect and save all your financial documents. I enjoy creating spreadsheets and tracking my finances more than the average person, but I still spend a few hours every spring frustrated by them. In the last two years, I’ve moved states, changed jobs and bought a house. All of those moves found their way onto my tax form, a line of numbers whispering, “Isn’t it easier to just stay put?”
But humans wander. As we stretch our influence further into the solar system, government infrastructure like tax collection will have to adapt to support the people living off-Earth. Our longest duration missions to this point are to the ISS, which is still in Earth’s backyard. They might be off-surface, but they’re never more than a moment’s transmission away. A trip to Mars or beyond will present new limitations on how we securely transfer data in a timely way, both for official business and recreation. We explore part of this issue at HI-SEAS with a 20 minute delay on communication to and from sMars. It can be frustrating and confusing to work through issues with people on Earth when you have to wait least 40 minutes for a response.
Even writing this blog post required me to send out a message for help to mission support to conduct some research online, wait for a response and then for me to reply back. That’s an hour of wait time minimum between transmissions for just one blog post. Add in all your official business and personal emails to family and you might find yourself spending a lot of time doing something else while waiting for a response. You’ve got to plan ahead. I don’t know what tax collection will look like for our future intrepid astronauts, but I can guarantee they won’t be able to wait to file at the last minute.
Happy tax week!