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Tomorrow’s world

Shipping containers are the future of farming

Kimbal Musk shows off his veg. Million Gardens Movement

Kimbal Musk, 48, is as serious about turning Earth into a farmer’s paradise as his older brother, Elon, is about putting people on Mars, says Alex Morris in Rolling Stone. Musk minor, a Silicon Valley tech billionaire turned chef, wears a cowboy hat and says wacky things such as “food is the new internet”. But software is a piddling $400bn industry – the food market he wants to corner is worth $18 trillion.

The indoor farming business he co-founded in 2017, Square Roots, runs 10 “container farms” in Brooklyn, New York: repurposed shipping containers where mint, aubergines, turnips, strawberries and tomatoes are grown in controlled environments that can mimic any climate. There’s no soil; nutrients are pumped around in clear water pipes. One container produces the same amount of food as a two- or three-acre farm from only 340 sq ft.

Square Roots then uses AI to tailor and monitor an environment for each crop. For basil, the air is exactly the same as it was for a bumper crop harvested in Genoa in 1997. Smart lighting simulates the same levels of sunshine and it adjusts by the minute. “Mint grows best in the Yucatan Peninsula,” says Musk – so they’ve recreated that climate as well. Pests are killed by switching a crate’s climate to “Mojave mode”: 50C at the California desert’s 4% humidity for four days.

Musk, who made “a gazillion dollars” selling the software company Zip2 with his brother in 1999, says the seasonal lifestyle suits him. “If you are in the software world, it’s more ‘move fast and break things’.” Farming takes time. This is “something in between”.

Now anyone can be an astronaut 

Bill Ingalls/Nasa/Getty Images

In the days of the Apollo missions, astronauts needed to be in peak physical and mental condition to fly to space. Soon, though, “almost anyone will be able to go” if they can afford the $55m ticket, says Neel Patel in MIT Technology Review.

The first astronauts had to be highly educated, younger than 40 and shorter than 5ft 11in, with military piloting experience and a spotless medical history. Training was a rigorous two-year process. Now it’s getting easier.

This autumn SpaceX plans to launch Inspiration 4, the first all-civilian crewed mission to space. On board will be Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old American nurse who survived bone cancer as a child and has a titanium rod in her left leg. SpaceX supremo Elon Musk has said anyone who can handle “an intense rollercoaster ride” should be able to fly on the Dragon spacecraft.

Astronaut training for civilians is down to six months. Many spacecraft work autonomously, so their crew primarily need to learn how to go about routine tasks such as preparing meals in space. They must also understand emergency procedures. But if companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are serious about launching hundreds of space missions every year, training will have to be cut to a matter of days.