Musk, Mars & the Iron Horse

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last September, Elon Musk stood on stage in a packed auditorium in Guadalajara, Mexico, and invoked America’s 19th century expansion into the West to support his plan to colonize Mars in the 21st century.

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system,” he said. “It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

“When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that’s a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But, now today we’ve got the U.S. epicenter of technology development and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation.”

Invoking California and America’s westward expansion in Guadalajara was not a particularly sensitive move on Musk’s part. Mexico lost California, Texas and the rest of the Southwest to its aggressive northern neighbor in the 1830’s and 1840’s – a loss that still resonates deeply today.

Then again, Musk’s target audience wasn’t his hosts, but rather those in the United States and elsewhere who he hopes will help fund his dream of Mars colonization. If the venue made Musk’s historical analogy awkward, his bold plan to settle the rugged martian frontier by appealing to past glories resonated with those seated in the auditorium and watching online.

But, exactly how good is Musk’s analogy? What is/was the Union Pacific Railroad? What role did it play in opening up California and the American West? And did people at the time really think it was a super dumb idea at the time it was built?

To answer the second question first, the Union Pacific was one of two companies commissioned in 1862 to construct and operate the United States’ first Transcontinental Railroad. Building tracks westward from Iowa, the Union Pacific never actually reached the Golden State. Instead, it connected to tracks being laid eastward by the Central Pacific Railroad in a remote part of Utah.

The Union Pacific remains in business today, 155 years later, hauling freight across 32,100 miles of track in the western two thirds of the United States. In 2016, the company had just under $20 billion in revenues.

I will address the other questions in the multi-part series that begins today. Part I, “A Vast, Howling Wilderness,” will look at the 30-year campaign to build the Transcontinental Railroad to the West Coast. The second installment, “The Road to Promontory,” will examine the building of the railroad between 1862 and 1869. Part III, “All Aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express,” will compare the Transcontinental Railroad with the SpaceX founder’s plans to build a transportation system to Mars.












  • ReSpaceAge
  • windbourne

    SATs are just part of it. Spacex has invested money in solar city, now Tesla. In particular, leases like mine help support spacex’s buildout of BFR. Around year 10, we kill the lease ( an option for us ), and then buy Tesla roof and battery, all of which spacex owns a chunk of.

  • windbourne

    Btw, you can bet that SX will make an investment into hyperloop and the boring company.

  • therealdmt

    Nice ambition, Doug.

    I have to say, I hope you don’t go too negative in Part 3. We all know it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky, really. Especially considering the lack of air ‘n stuff. Anyway, I’m definitely looking forward to the railroad read

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Doug, an article analysing/criticising an analogy….really?

    Do you really think that this particular analogy, used to frame his presentation, was aimed at space geeks, or potential settlers, or potential investors?. BFR/BFS is not the space equivalent of the Union Pacific Railroad, it is the space equivalent of the first iteration of the ship and the train and the bus and the airliner and the truck. Not that their aim to make a profit getting settlers to Mars, but what is the revenue of all transportation services on Earth?.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    California actually has the largest population of all the states in the USA. Texas has the biggest land area in the lower 48.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually a better analogy with be the U.S. Army in the American West. After the Mexican American War they established lines of forts on the western frontier. To supply them they commercialized their logistic system using private vendors to replace military units that originally transported supplies to forts. These forts became anchors for many towns in the west, buying supplies and materials from local entrepreneurs. The private wagon firms that brought goods and mail to the forts also carried goods and mail for the local town. The telegraph lines that the government put in to communicate with the forts were available for private use. The Army also surveyed the regions they were located in, as well as the different railroad routes, and policed the region.

    NASA could have a similar role in space. They could start by leasing space on a Bigelow B330 at the EM L1, then do likewise on the lunar surface. Then do the same for Mars, first at a Phobos base then the Martian surface. It would be a logical extension of COTS and allow NASA to get more out of its budget.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “But, exactly how good is Musk’s analogy?”

    Just about as good as any analogy across 200 years of time, in a completely different technology, not that much. Projecting any deeper into it other than the general idea that sometimes it isn’t obvious that there is economic opportunity when building a transportation infrastructure, is a waste of one’s time. It’s is a marketing meme, with a grain of parallelism. Why waste one’s effort on this?

  • Douglas Messier

    Oh, I don’t know.

    Elon Musk is only the latest space leader to use America’s 19th century expansion as an analog while raising his arms to the skies to urge humanity on to colonize the heavens. This has been a widely accepted meme whose popularity — particularly among American space enthusiasts — has been inversely proportional to the amount of critical thought about it. If it was even remotely true, we would have progressed much further in space by now.

    In any event, I’m not sure your comparison is very accurate, either. And you might want to read the entire series before condemning it.

  • Douglas Messier

    Read the series and then decide.

  • WhoAmI

    Very interesting… I’m looking forward to reading the series.

  • publiusr

    PayPal allowed him to operate at a loss–so this has always been about his own interests.

    The tunnel project may help with an underground Mars base.