The Railroad and the Space Program Revisited: Historical Analogues and the Stimulation of Commercial Space Operations

What if there had never been railroads?

Is there a relationship between railroads and the space program?

I am planning to give the paper, “The Railroad and the Space Program Revisited: Historical Analogues and the Stimulation of Commercial Space Operations,” at an upcoming conference entitled “Spinoffs of Mobility: Technology, Risk & Innovation.” This is the theme for the annual meeting of the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T²M) organization taking place at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 18-21, 2014.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

The abstract for my paper reads:

In 1965 historian Bruce Mazlish edited the NASA-sponsored study, The Railroad and the Space Program. An Exploration in Historical Analogy (MIT Press), seeking to understand the historical record of government stimulation of private sector investment in infrastructure for the public good. The study team explored several specific episodes of American railroad history. It took as its mission: “In all of these studies an effort will be made to move from the impact of the railroad in the specific area under consideration to an analogy with the possible space impact today in similar areas.” While the result was disappointing at the time there remain lessons to be gained in exploring the historical analogue of railroad building and operation in the nineteenth century and their application to an expansion of space exploitation. While many are familiar with the enticing of American transcontinental railroad construction through land grants, national, state, and local governments had engaged in a range other stimulative efforts to facilitate railroad development. These included tax breaks, investment credits, and otherwise favorable decisions supporting these business interests. It also involved in some instances direct subsidies for a time, monopolies not only on railroad operations but also in ancillary and even tertiary industries, and changes to regulations to ease requirements for labor, safety, and other factors. This paper revisits this analogue, drawing several key findings from the railroad experience. It suggests that there is a broad range of options that have been pursued in the past to stimulate investment in infrastructure—in this case in railroads—that have application for future space operations. Not all of these options were successful—some failed outright and others had detrimental unintended consequences—and that will be discussed as well.

Your thoughts on this topic are most welcome.

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3 Responses to The Railroad and the Space Program Revisited: Historical Analogues and the Stimulation of Commercial Space Operations

  1. Andy Prince says:


    Having thought about this problem rather recently, I think the biggest difference between railroads and space transportation is that space (and missile) technology development was co-opted by governments for military and other nationalistic purposes. This led to a market paradigm for the space transportation industry that focused on meeting military and national requirements, versus the primarily economic market paradigm that drove the expansion of the railroads. As a result, the space transportation industry was built around government laboratories (i.e. NASA Centers) supported by a small cadre of specialized contractors. The railroad industry, despite being supported and subsidized by governments at all levels, maintained private control over the industrial base.

    My personal opinion is that the early involvement of the US Government in forcing space launch technology and systems development led to a distortion in the marketplace and created barriers to entry for entrepreneurs who did not wish to be a part of the government-led industrial base. Unlike the railroads, the space transportation industry was not allowed to develop in response to consumer demand and within the context of the underlying industrial and technological capabilities of society. These barriers have only recently begun to be lowered and a private space transportation industrial base established. This paradigm shift is causing much angst among the established players, and is having an impact on US government decisions, both now and in the future.

    By the way, please do not take the previous paragraph as a criticism of US government action, past or present. The US faced serious existential threats in WWII and the Cold War. The necessity of developing government-led space transportation capabilities to support military and national needs far outweighed purely market-driven approaches.

    Going forward, I think that the near-term space transportation market is going to continue to be dominated by government requirements. We are slowly moving into an economic paradigm that is driven by private industry, rather than purely government requirements. But until someone comes up with a way to drastically lower the cost of launch to LEO, I don’t think we are going to see a significant change in demand or composition of the market. On other change that may be needed is for the 1967 (?) treaty on space to be modified to allow for countries and individuals to claim ownership of parts of the moon, asteroids, etc. thus providing a greater economic incentive for private industry.


  2. Dan Lester says:

    Roger –
    I think a key difference between historical rail development and future space transportation is that the former connected people. It connected people who missed each other, and people who were buyers and sellers/producers and consumers. It was an easier way to get from point A to point B, and not the only way. The space program doesn’t obviously offer those similarities. At least not yet. One might wonder about a rail development that connected humans to a distant, and totally uninhabited destination. Has there been any such development? Sure, that might spur activity at that destination, but I don’t believe that’s a proven template for success. That is, it may be simplistic to draw lessons for a transportation system from another whose patterns of use are totally different.


  3. Paul says:

    To what extent has the 1800s physical transportation (of people and goods) been replaced by 2100s virutal transportation (telepresence, transmission of information goods)? Perhaps the analogy should be between railroads and communication satellites. Or maybe canals -> comsats, railroads -> fiber optic internet.


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