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.

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