Elon Musk’s Bad Historical Analogy

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

During his appearance at the International Space Station R&D Conference on Wednesday, Elon Musk recited an old argument to support his plans to colonize Mars.

Back in the day,California was an empty place where almost nobody lived. At least until some crazy visionaries built the Transcontinental Railroad to it even though everyone thought it was a completely crazy thing to do.

Jump ahead 150 years, and California is the place you want a be, a center of commerce, innovation and culture people migrate to when they want to be a movie star, have an idea for a new app or simply want a fresh start. All because some visionaries had a crazy idea.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Makes you want to sell the house and buy a ticket on Musk’s Mars Express, right?

That’s what Musk is hoping. There’s just one slight problem with this analogy: it’s not based on very much.

Musk may be a genius at business and innovation, but he’s a terrible amateur historian. In fact, he gets the empty part of the Transcontinental Railroad project completely backwards.

There is a kernel of truth in what Musk says. When a transcontinental railroad was first proposed in the United States in 1830, it was a crazy idea, but for perfectly sane reasons.

There weren’t that many Americans living in California, which was then Mexican territory. It wasn’t even that heavily populated with Mexicans and Native Americans.

A railroad at that point would have been a boon to land speculators and to traders wanting to connect to Asia through  West Coast ports. But, those benefits didn’t outweigh the cost and complexity of trying to build a railroad largely through a foreign country. There was little percentage in it.

California wasn’t the only problem in terms of available land. Oregon Country, which lay to to the north of California, was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain. The two nations had overlapping claims on the vast region.

That situation changed in the late 1840’s. The United States and Great Britain peacefully settled their Oregon boundary claims along the 49th parallel in 1846. Two years later, the United States gained California and a large swath of the Southwest in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War.

To cap off this vast territorial expansion, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California the same year. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the new American state seeking their fortune in the gold fields. Most of them failed, but many ended up staying anyway. A year after the gold strike, California became an American state.

By the early 1850’s, it was not a question of whether to build a railroad to the West Coast, but how and where. It made sense for political, economic and military reasons to bind the new West Coast possessions to the rest of the country. It was, in modern parlance, a no brainer.

The U.S. Army surveyed four viable routes to the West Coast and a fifth north-south route through California and Oregon. By 1855, everything was looking real good.

But, as sometimes happens in big infrastructure projects, Congress became gridlocked over the spoils, specifically which east-west route to select. This North-South split was deeply intertwined with a bitter divide over slavery and whether to admit newly organized Western territories as free or slave states.

The project was delayed for years by partisan bickering. The railroad route remained unsettled when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

Free of Southern members, the U.S. Congress was able to select a route and charter two companies, Union Pacific andCentral Pacific, to begin work on the railroad in 1862. It would take seven years to complete.

Secession movements in California and Oregon added urgency to the project as a way of solidifying their loyalty to the Union. But, to repeat, the project had been on the books for about a decade at that point and had broad support.

The Golden Spike ceremony celebrating the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah in May 1869.

When the railroad was completed in 1869, it provided a way of reaching California that was superior to the overland and shipping routes that settlers had used previously. It accelerated an on-going process of westward migration that had begun decades before.

And here’s what Musk gets things backwards about the Transcontinental Railroad. California had a substantial population by the time it was built. But, vast stretches of territory through which the railroad ran – Utah, Nevada and the Great Plains – were largely empty. Or, at least empty of the American settlers the railroads wanted to serve.

There were Native Americans who occupied the land. Most of them did not like the railroad intruding into their territories. And they fought a valiant but losing battle against the iron horse and the largely white settlers who followed.

The relative lack of American settlers between the eastern terminus in Council Bluffs, Iowa and California was actually a major headache for the two railroads. The railroads were granted huge tracts of land along the route as compensation. But, it took a while to survey the tracts, record the deeds, and sell and develop the properties.

In the meantime, the railroads had to maintain service over a vast stretch of territory where there were few settlers. The line stretch across vast deserts, rugged mountains and plains subject to all measures of bad weather. It was a costly proposition.

The distance between the Earth and Mars is full of empty space that doesn’t need to be filled in. But, Mars does. Unlike California, Musk will be starting from scratch with no people, no settlements and no infrastructure. That is a very different proposition from the Transcontinental Railroad.

Musk also lacks something that made the railroad possible: a national consensus that colonizing Mars makes sense for a set of clearly defined economic, political and military reasons.

The economic return on investment is unclear. There is no strong political support for Musk’s main argument that we need to back up humanity on Mars in case Earth is wiped out in some future cataclysm. The military case for a Mars colony is currently non-existent.

Musk has put forth an ambitious transportation architecture in the hope that if he builds it, governments and private companies will go to Mars and fund the massive infrastructure needed to keep a large population alive, healthy and productive there.

But, here’s the Catch-22: he badly needs the government to invest a substantial sum into the transportation system to get to that point. Without a compelling set of reasons to do so, the project is hard to move forward.

For a more detailed discussion of this subject, please see the three-part series: Musk, Mars & the Iron Horse










  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “When a transcontinental railroad was first proposed in the United States in 1830, it was a crazy idea, but for perfectly sane reasons. There weren’t that many Americans living in California, which was then Mexican territory. It wasn’t even that heavily populated with Mexicans and Native Americans.”

    Really, sounds similar? Aren’t we in the phase of first proposal where zero people live on Mars? You seem to contradict your own statement. Any antidote across 100+ years is going to have a lot of slop built in by definition. The fundamental principle in play is sound, transportation systems are catalyst for economic activity. No one with their head screwed on straight would lightly take up moving the Mars like deciding to move to Denver from LA. That said with many billions of people on the planet that still leaves room for thousands of very adventurous people to have a go at a colony.

    But before that can happen we have to prove to ourselves we can get there and back and a reasonably large scale. And NASA can, and should, help prove those concepts out, and leave settlement to the private sector if it ever takes off. You implicitly setup a false dichotomy that NASA must stay away OR be heavily involved with large scale settlement infrastructure. That is nonsense, NASA should invest in technologies/architectures to facilitate the possibility of colonization (not just gimmick flags and footprints) but not get involved with actual colony funding.

    The USAF is already helping fund Mars program with development for Raptor, there are many many other areas of similar overlap that could be applied more broadly. You have to be excessively narrow minded not to see lots of use cases for large, fully reusable launch vehicles, once the are developed.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    In the end, you just have to make the jump. It’s a jump the US probably has to take if for one reason. The US cannot thrive in a world of it’s own creation. It’s economic and military structure was great for winning the crisis of the 20th Cen, however its model of steep separations between private and public sectors drives its private sector to the reverse colonization money and labor sources of Asia. Pax Americana does not make the world safe for Democracy, it makes the world safe for Japanese style industrial policy to lure American production and know how overseas in exchange for paper money. The American business sector cannot resist this, and by American libertarian ideals the US Government can’t/won’t stop it.

    There’s even more signs of American decline, in that our leadership cadres now see a process of cashing in old established alliances by selling out to old foes. We see this with the Trump cadre’s fascination with Russia over NATO. The long term prospects for American hegemony look bleak as the victory of our worldview has created conditions where the interests of our commercial sector and certain political camps no longer are line line with what’s good for the United States as a whole.

    The founding of a colonial American empire might be a counterforce against these processes. The US could have been a perfectly functional nation had it remained on the East Coast. Going West was a major game changer for the young nation. Going up and out will be the same for us and our descendants. As to the good or the bad of it, I leave that to you. Opinions of smart people differ as to the overall good of Westward expansion. Given where I live, and my lack of identity to any of my European ancestors, I think you know where I stand on the issue.

  • Douglas Messier

    We’ve been in the phase of first proposal for 60 years now since von Braun and The Mars Project. The point of the post is nobody’s put forth a sufficiently compelling set of political, economic and strategic reasons to justify a major effort to send people there. I don’t think Elon has either.

    You talk about how to get there and the proper role for NASA. Fine. But you’re mistaking the how with the why. The US had to get to the why before it decided exactly how and where to build a railroad to the West Coast.

  • windbourne

    Hmmm. A bone to pick on the history.
    One thing that you have wrong is that very little of USA was actually owned by Mexico. They CLAIMED it, but New SPain/Mexico NEVER had more than 50,000 ppl in the entire USA. But to OWN IT, you had to be the majority here and New Spain/Mexico NEVER EVER had a majority here. Does not mean that they did not try. Once Spain took over from what is now Mexico on south, they kept invading into the north fighting and murdering the Natives here.

    Who was here, were the Native Americans. And there were 100-200 of millions of Native Americans when the Spaniards started murdering and carrying diseases through this region. It is estimated that by the time that the english/french really stated in, that the Spaniards had killed off all but 50 million natives. IOW, they killed 1/2 to 3/4 of them with their wars and diseases.
    In CA, Mexico never had more than 15,000 ppl. Again, other than some forts, it was all Native Americans that owned this. And yes, there were MILLIONS of Native Americans living in CA when we really started to flow in there.

    As to the treaty, it was a joke. Total Joke. It would be like you and me making a treaty to divide Denver. I doubt that you own it and I know that I do not . I have spent plenty of time there, but again, I do not own it.

  • windbourne

    strategic reason is to keep humanity alive and spread out in the universe, and make the science easier and faster.

    In addition, we do not fully know what is at mars, or beyond. It is quite probable that we will develop a number of economic reasons, which will lead to political reasons to be there.
    As to the moon, no real economic reason, but a lot of political reasons.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The first problem is expecting an agency focused on science to do economic development. NASA only embraced COTS out of dire necessity and seems organizationally unable to go the next step to commercial crew if Elon Musk’s talk of all the barriers they are putting up is accurate. Requiring 50 launches of the Falcon 9 before they allow crew on it is nuts. All the various launch vehicles NASA has used over the last 56 years wouldn’t even have combined total of 50 launches. Most had only a handful of flight before NASA strapped astronauts in and hit the button. That is why most astronauts are former test pilots.

    The why is important, and Robert Bigelow spent his talk on the why – national competitiveness. But how is also important. Every historical public-private partnership to build enabling infrastructure has been unique and a product of its times, from the funding of post roads in colonial days and the national road under the Jefferson Administration to our modern Interstate Highway system and Comsat. Cislunar develop will be no different.

    The good thing is that now that Elon Musk has joined Robert Bigelow and Jeff Bezos on focusing on near term Cislunar development you have a window of opportunity to create a new public-private partnership. But like all past examples it needs to be specially crafted for the job. NASA has neither the organizational structure, culture, or tradition to do it. They need to be refocus on what they seem to want, searching for ET on Mars and beyond and a new clean sheet organization given the task of developing Cislunar space.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Strategic reason is global leadership and national competitiveness. Space is and will continue to be an example of geopolitical strength.

  • Not Invented Here

    It’s the perfect analog given the changes to a mini-ITS architecture.

    1. In the 1830s very few people in California, the railroad doesn’t make economic sense => Right now nobody lives on Mars, so the original ITS is too big and expensive

    2. Population grows in California via other means of transportation => Musk propose a small scale ITS which is more affordable and can do Mars missions with smaller # of people.

    3. Once population reached a certain threshold, railroad makes economic sense again. => Once a Mars base is established using smaller ITS, the original ITS or even bigger ones start to make economic sense.

  • Douglas Messier

    Musk could do it that way. But, that’s the how. The big question is why. That’s the point of the post. The U.S. had to get to the why before they figured out how, when and where to build a railroad to California.

    I don’t think Elon has come up with any more compelling reasons to do this than von Braun did 50 years ago.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    When they proposed and built the transcontinental railroad, you could farm the land in California, you could fish the rivers and ocean and you could breathe the air. None of these things can you do on Mars. You’re right Doug. We have to come to a consensus on the “why” before we start worrying about the “how.”

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Well the timescale is irrelevant as we are dealing with many orders of magnitude more complexity than a transcontinental railroad. We are really still in the very early stages, <1830s, since no one has even gone yet, hence crazy territory.

    My personal reason is just as vapid, because we can (I like it when humans are pushing ourselves to do what is only barely possible). Also a future which human civilization on two planets is quite exciting, the possibility of building launch infra on Mars to throw mass (exploration/research) deeper into the solar system is very exciting. And lastly, I don't presume to know the answer before the experiment is run, when it comes to human creativity and markets. Lots of unexpected advancements where people thought there was no value…

  • Not Invented Here

    No, get to why before how is the reason we have been stuck in LEO for 50 years. The US as a whole will never come to a consensus before the fact, even when Neil is walking on the Moon the public support for Apollo is only at 53%. The idea of reaching a national consensus before doing something is the biggest baloney in space policy and should be banned from all discussion.

    Did Apple get consensus that smart phone is a good idea before they released the iPhone? Hell no, we only have consensus that it is a good idea today because iPhone is successful, that’s where consensus comes from, when the idea is shown to be a winner, then everyone and their dogs will all flock to be with the winner.

    This is why the “How” is the most important thing, it allows you to turn idea into reality, once it is a reality and it is successful, then we’ll have “consensus”.

  • Douglas Messier

    The act of expanding America westward or humanity out into space is simply not comparable to a product launch. It’s not a gadget that you create and put out into the marketplace in the hope it catches on. It’s a much more profound act that requires a set of reasons for doing so that are sustainable over time. That’s especially true for anything involving large govt investments.

  • redneck

    Without why, how is irrelevant. Anyone knows how to get so drunk they get sick, why is reserved for people that don’t think about why.

    If you don’t know why you are going, people won’t support your how.

  • Richard Malcolm

    The “backup for humanity” is a harder argument to sell when there’s no obvious immediate threat to our current home. Most people could probably concede the argument in the abstract, in the long term; but right now, it does not seem urgent. Whereas the costs and difficulty of doing it (given present human capabilities) are enormous. And Mars, despite the residual romance associated with it, doesn’t seem like a very attractive place to do it.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I think your numbers are a bit off on the Genocide by a few orders of magnitude. But yes, many native Americans died when the Europeans brought over their diseases. But, please dial the numbers down to reality.

  • Panice

    Actually, we don’t need a consensus on the “why,” we just need the reason or reasons. In economic terms, we need demand. A way to do that without the barrier of an unachievable consensus is building an increasingly diverse cislunar economy that employs enough people to require settlements. In time, costs and risks will be so low that a jump straight to Mars might be affordable. If not, people will work their way out to nearby asteroids and on to the Martian moons. Eventually they’ll go to the surface for their reasons, not ours.

    Jumping straight to Mars now is like trying to railroad before it’s time to railroad.

  • AdmBenson

    Why Space? To save Capitalism. Basically, as an economy matures, the growth rate decreases and private borrowing becomes insufficient to keep up interest rates. One mechanism to counteract this is a state of constant warfare that dials government borrowing up or down to regulate the economy. The best type of war to achieve this goal is one fought against a poorly armed opponent on one hand, but unlikely to lead to a swift conclusion on the other (i.e. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). The second best type of war is a cold war against a capable opponent (i.e. Russia, China) that is unlikely to lead to actual shooting.

    Space exploration and development is a viable alternative to this insanity. Space is big enough and difficult enough to absorb all the money thrown at it. And, just like endless war, return on investment is not a consideration. So, go on, think BIG. This world would be a lot better place if we focused on putting people on the Moon, Mars, etc., rather than on killing each other.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Wow, I just re-listened the ISS R&D talk. The bit about Union Pacific railroad was on the heels of reuse and orbit and beyond (“changing the economics”), wasn’t even specific to Mars. It was about economics of scale and reuse. So this is all pointless.

  • windbourne

    That is assumed to be wrong numbers.

    I will say that my numbers are also wrong. Those were for THE AMERICAS (north, south, central), and not just USA itself. Sorry.

    BUT, 300K for just california is way too low.


    While it is difficult to determine exactly how many Natives lived in North America before Columbus,[6] estimates range from a low of 2.1 million[7] to 7 million[8] people to a high of 18 million[9]

    In addition, most of the disease deaths was NOT ‘Europeans’, but the Spaniards/Portuguese. They moved quickly through populations looking to ravage and plummet, and carried the diseases with them (most likely unknown).

    So many like to accuse the Europeans as a whole,when in reality, it was a small group.

  • Vladislaw

    When the railroads were built the government had gadzillions of acres of land to give away all along every railway. Also the railroad had free use of gravel and timber on land all the way. Unless there is property rights it is impossible to make ANY anology to anything historical. There were merchants in california that wanted to sell equipment to the flood of homestake miners flooding the state for the land claims and all the rights to water, timber, stone, minerals..

  • Vladislaw

    a great read on this is 1491 (a year before columbus)

    “In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

    Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.”

    https://www.amazon.com/1491-Revelations-Americas-Before-Columbus/dp/1400032059 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6184dbef32a9bf74b57c247d1120ba63a8d0efb4bd8247747b4382c2165efc16.jpg

  • Vladislaw

    There are all these excerpts from early visitors to north america. This one by a Spaniard talks about you could smell the wood fires 100 miles out to see no matter where you sailed along the coasts… and the maps show countless… endless lists of indian towns and villages that were spotted and noted.

  • AdmBenson

    One reason the original ITS was so big was to keep the marginal cost for a single passenger down to something that a lot of people could afford. Making it smaller would reduce the overall cost of a voyage, but reduce the number of paying passengers carried.

  • redneck

    To me the railroad analogy is poorly thought out. A better fit is a ship building industry. Phoenicians, Vikings, Spanish, Dutch, English, French and more are noted for empires built n shipping. Not a railroad that went to a fixed destination, but fleets of ships that could go where the incentives led. The Columbus fleet was not built for the purpose of discovering America, but for local European uses. Spanish treasure ships could go to the Americas, or to the Philippines, or to other European ports.

    Railroads don’t build empires, only consolidate existing ones. Trans Siberian railroad for instance along with the American transcontinental.

    Build a shipyard and the rest follows. Build a railroad and learn why many operate at a loss.

  • duheagle

    Capitalism doesn’t need saving except from the insane encroachment of ever-bigger and more intrusive government. It isn’t the “maturity” of the economy that slows growth, it’s the growth of “mature” government. NASA is kind of a scale model of the general process of government age-related senescence.

  • duheagle

    People went West for all sorts of reasons. The ones with very intense reasons went earliest and put up with the lengthy and dangerous transport technologies that were the best available at the time.

    Later availability of better transport vastly increased the number of people with somewhat less intense reasons going West. What SpaceX seems to be trying to do is skip past the mountain men on foot, covered wagon and windjammers-around-the-Horn phases of California and Oregon settlement anent Mars. I don’t think that’s at all a bad idea. What Elon proposes to do is a bit analogous to building Route 66 in 1826 instead of 1926. If someone had done that, one wonders what the subsequent history of the U.S. might have looked like. Perhaps SpaceX will actually reach Mars by 2026. If so, it will be interesting to contemplate what the Mars of 2126 might look like.

    A great deal of consequential American history has been made by brilliant obsessives. Elon Musk is earning himself a deserved place among them.

  • duheagle

    Agree with most of this except the part about the alleged inevitability of American industry moving off-shore. That process was driven entirely by dysfunctional government policies implemented under Democratic administrations and still defended by the modern Democratic Party. These policies are readily reversible and doing so would restore the rationality of stateside capital investment once more. I entertain some hopes the Trump adminstration can accomplish at least some of what needs to be done along these lines.

    Based on your last name, at least some of your ancestors came from sunny Italy. Mine mostly came from the Scottish lowlands. Perhaps your father or grandfather frequented the Sons of Italy or Knights of Columbus halls. You probably don’t. I don’t go to Bobby Burns Night dinners either. We can take a certain amount of disconnected pride in what our respective ancestors accomplished in their own home spaces without necessarily sharing any desire to live like they did.

    The same will likely prove true of American culture transplanted to Mars. Mars won’t be an outpost of American “empire.” A century or more hence, Mars – if settlement there actually “sticks” – will have a culture of its own that is likely to be at variance in significant ways both with present-day and future-day Earthside American culture. Dynamic cultures change. Not all the changes in two such cultures will necessarily be in lockstep parallel. That is, in fact, the least likely outcome.

  • duheagle

    If the British and the Dutch had gotten here ahead of the Spanish and Portuguese the result would have been the same. Native American populations, both the large civilizations of North, South and Central America and the tribal hunter-gatherers and subsistence agriculturalists of North America and hinterlands elsewhere, were genetically isolated and had no resistance to the pathogens that came with the Europeans.

    Except for syphilis, the Europeans picked up no consequential pathogens from Native Americans. The reason was Europe had seen much more mobility between the Crusades and the Renaissance than had Native American populations. The Middle East is a formidable petri dish of obscure pathogens even now – “Gulf War Syndrome” anyone. At the time of the Crusades it was far worse. The Crusaders came way South and East after the turn of the First Millenium. The Mongols were making their way West through the lands of Islam not long after. All the diseases of Asia, North Africa and Europe got mixed up thoroughly shared around, including – quite notably from a European perspective – The Black Death, which hit about 150 years before Columbus.

    It was the descendants of the survivors of all these pathogens that set foot on North, South and Central American soil and sealed the doom of an even larger percentage of Native Americans than of Europeans anent The Black Death. It just happened to be the Spanish and Portuguese who got here first.

  • AdmBenson

    Ok, suppose that NASA ceased to exist. Would that put SpaceX or Blue Origin closer to the Moon? I don’t think so. Absent government contracts, there’s no business case for them to make money flying there.

    Personally, I’d like to see NASA get out of the rocket business and into the space exploration business. The grander their plans, the better. I suspect SpaceX and Blue Origin want that too, considering how much they’ll profit from NASA’s ambitions.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Granted, however if people expect the government (or governments) to pay for most of it, there will have to be widespread support from taxpayers. All this begs the question of what these intrepid settlers are really going to do there. The first order of business, survival, will take years or decades and trillions of dollars not to mention the astronomical amount of brain power on scene to keep things moving forward. The age of exploration required cutting edge technology and cutting edge technology requires massive and diverse infrastructure. Unfortunately, the “what are they going to do there” question is the 2000 lb gorilla in the room and the question that most folks gloss over.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    There is also no guarantee that Mars is safe. A comet or asteroid can hit Mars just as easily as one can hit Earth. It would be a real pity to place people on the planet as a lifeboat only to have it struck by the very calamity they were sent to prevent.

  • Richard Malcolm

    A comet or asteroid can hit any planet; but the argument is that if humanity is located on multiple planets, no one planetary catastrophe can wipe out the entire species.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually they probably would. NASA launching commercial payloads at marginal cost from 1962 to 1987 basically prevented the emergence of a commercial launch industry for decades. It was only able to emerged when NASA was ordered to stop after the Challenger accident.

    If there were no NASA there would probably be multiple private space stations as destinations for HSF and multiple private ways to reach them. But it is hard to get customers when NASA undercuts you with tax payer money as it did with for decades when it offered commercial launch services.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You are confusing marginal cost with average cost. Pricing at margin cost would not enable him to cover his fix costs. Pricing at the Average Cost for the demand expected would.

    In terms of Mars Elon Musk has hit two big walls. The first is that he is trusting that transportation to Mars will encourage someone to develop the technology to live there. The second is that there is no way he will get a license to send humans there in large numbers until the science community agrees there is no danger of contimation to the planet. This means that like it or not the surface of Mars is off limits to settlement for decades. So the only market that will exist until then will be to transportation and support small parties of scientists there.

    By contrast there are no planetary protection barriers to the Moon and Cislunar space. So it makes sense for him to focus his efforts where he will be legally allowed to go.

  • Paul451

    Requiring 50 launches of the Falcon 9

    You’re being silly. No-one has said that NASA has “required” 50 launches of F9 before crew. Musk and Shotwell have bragged that SpaceX’s aggressive launch schedule means that F9 will have at least 50 flights before the first crew flight.

  • Paul451

    There are already property rights in space. The OST guarantees it.

    There are no sovereignty claims in space. Which is a different thing. Perhaps the opposite thing.

  • MorB

    True it’s not a very good analogy. But we all know there are many good reasons to go to Mars if we can afford it. Scientific reasons, for starters an lots ot them. And given the price of the robots we are sending and will keep sending there, a small base to teleoperate them and take care of them would be useful very quickly. And once you have an outpost you can begin ISRU and lots of thing to prepare a bigger facility. Once you have a small team up there there’ll be tons of work for them to do.
    To make the trip affordable you need a HLV (Saturn-V class or bigger) than can both fly frequently (and mainly for a commercial market) and be fully reusable. NASA doesn’t know how to do that, SLS is a perfect example of that claim. But we can suspect the downsized version of the ITS, should be able to do just that. When you’re planning to send
    thousands of satellites around Earth, you need such a rocket or fly hundreds of flights. Add missions to the Moon and you have a legitimate reason to think it’s gonna be used more than once a year.
    The flight profile of the second stage of the ITS wasn’t very good. But, as said Zubrin, if you release your payload short of Earth escape to TMI or TLI both your stages are down on Earth within days… Way different than what the Saturn-V did and SLS will do.
    But without a place to go to, everything is pointless, of course. A small outpost should be a public-private partership. Contrary to the Moon, most of the mass useful for such a missions could be readily find on Mars. So it’s definitely not California, but not a perfect desolate desert.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Wayne Hale references Intercontinental Railroad for space travel (Financing)

    @8:15 (Wayne Hale Von Braun Symposium speech)

  • duheagle

    I’d like to see NASA get out of the rocket business also – especially given that NASA has become so bad at rocketry.

    NASA, if it intends to have a lunar project, ought to go the COTS route again. But this Gateway thingy looks like an earnest of intent that COTS was a one-off and is never to be repeated. So far, it’s looking like it’s going to be back to the usual legacy contractors and the old-style cost-plus business as usual. There’s no obvious role for the commercial players that I can see.

    NASA giving SpaceX a ration of s–t about propulsive landing of Dragon 2 and legs through the heat shield are more earnests of intent. I think the orders come from Congress. The Lords of Pork will have their way and will brook no interference from upstarts who don’t “play ball.”

    We may be approaching a break point where commercial space is going to have to move forward on its own without any significant further revenue from NASA after ISS winds down. There may be money to be had from other governments and ESA, but I think Musk and Bezos may have to go to the Moon mostly on their own dime.