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Who is Iron Man?

The modern envisioning of Tony Stark is based on a real life physicist and entrepreneur

Several days ago I reported from Comic-Con 2010 on a panel about whether Stark Industries was a good model for the blossoming new-space industry. Admittedly, the panel was more of an excuse to talk about the future of private space flight than an actual analysis of the Stark model. Then on Saturday Samuel L. Jackson surprised thousands of attendees when he marched out on stage at the end of a Marvel panel and announced the new Avengers characters Black Widow, Agent Ghoulson, Thor and Captain America; Robert Downey Jr. followed by announcing Hawkeye and Bruce Banner. Which still left me wondering: who would the real Tony Stark be?

It turns out John Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. are way ahead of me. In their search for character inspiration in their re-imagining of Tony Stark, they turned to none other than modern tech privateer Elon Musk. He is the CEO and Founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors (a pre-release Tesla Roadster has a cameo in the first film).

In 2009, the company he started with $100-million dollars of his own cash, SpaceX, sent the first privately funded satellite into space with a liquid-rocket. Musk's vision is give humanity the capability of getting off of earth. In a 2008 Esquire peice he wrote that "sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball - or go extinct." It's that visionary sentiment, coupled with his ability to pick which limb to go way far out on, that has enabled his enormous success.

At age 10, he was already programing computers. By age 12, he was already selling his first software. He left his birth nation of South Africa without his parents support at age 17 to avoid compulsory service in an apartheid military and settled in Canada. After working as a manual laborer at a Canadian wheat farm and as a log cutter at a mill, he was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he would eventually receive dual bachelors in economics and physics.

After two days at Stanford as a physics graduate student in 1995, Musk dropped out to found Zip2 with his brother, the payment services company was acquired by Compaq a few years later for $300-million. The same year Compaq acquired Zip2, Musk started the whole thing over again with PayPal, which he also sold a few years later. This time the asking price was 1.5 billion, and Musk was holding 12-percent of the stock.

In an interview he once said there were three important problems he wanted to work on when he left Stanford: the internet, space and clean energy. As John Favreau put it in his description of him for Time's 100 people who will affect the world this year, Musk is "a renaissance man in an era that needs them." No he didn't have an uber rich father to hand him a company, but selling two companies for nearly $2-billion by age 30 is hardly humble beginnings.

And he followed those successes with even greater far-sightedness by starting SpaceX. Small start up space companies are notorious for chewing up and spitting out rich young (and old) playboys. Starting your own space company is a great way to lose a few hundred million dollars. But Musk is not your average daydreamer.

He wasn't exactly tinkering with rockets in his basement laboratory like Tony Stark, but SpaceX is the polar opposite of your average Lockheed Martin (though SpaceX's HQ is used as Ivan Vanko's lab in Iron Man 2). They find innovative ways to build rockets and fuel them with an eye to providing the cheapest space transport possible. In June, when he posed for pictures with the President next to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, Musk was being used as a symbol of the president's new vision of spaceflight, one where American ingenuity and a willingness to fail miserably can bring outstanding success.

In the coming years, SpaceX rockets will carry supplies to the ISS with multi-billion of dollars in contracts and it's likely that after the shuttle retires next year, they will also carry American astronauts. Such a move will drastically reduce the cost of trips to space and quickly shift the U.S. off what will soon be our Russian dependence on space transport. All this from a guy who has yet to reach 40.

Most of us struggle with one job and our personal lives, but while Musk was preparing to launch the first Falcon 9 rocket in June he was also preparing to launch the first auto company IPO since Ford Motors a few weeks later. Of course, both were incredible success stories that were widely reported on. But that isn't even all of Musk's commitments. While many know the recent successes of Tesla Motors, few are likely aware of Musk's other clean energy bet, Solar City. The real-life Tony Stark is chairman of the company and put $10M of his own cash in the California start up in 2006. Within a year it was already the number one residential supplier of solar electricity in the state. It now holds the title of number one residential supplier in the nation.

Musk can't fly (though he does have his own Iron Man suit), and he doesn't have a secret identity (that he's revealed yet anyway), but the rocket scientist brings reality into the world of the superhero. He's already forced GM to make the Volt, enabled a new-vision of space policy and brought clean energy to many parts of the country - and if all that doesn't come with tights and a cape I don't know what should.

Watch out for the Musk cameo in Iron Man 2 (sorry, it's in Spanish).


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