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Houston, we have a tomato: ISS astronauts locate missing fruit (or vegetable)

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio checks tomato plants growing inside the International Space Station for a space botany study.
Koichi Wakata
/
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/NASA
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio checks tomato plants growing inside the International Space Station for a space botany study.

It's gotta be hard to lose something when you're swirling around the Earth on the International Space Station — right? Well, apparently not. A missing tomato sparked a lighthearted mystery for the astronauts on board the ISS – and it's finally been solved after months of accusations and intrigue.

What is likely one of the first tomatoes ever harvested in space was plucked by astronaut Frank Rubio in March, shared in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) by NASA. So when it makes sense that when it vanished, all finger pointing was directed at Rubio.

Rubio recently made history for breaking the record of the longest spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut, spending 371 days in space. He returned to Earth at the end of September and spoke at a NASA briefing in October, where he addressed these tomato eating allegations.

He explained that NASA is conducting botany studies onboard the ISS so astronauts could figure out ways to grow fresh food in space for longer term missions.

"I put [the tomato] in a little bag, and one of my crewmates was doing [an] event with some schoolkids, and I thought it'd be kind of cool to show the kids, 'Hey guys, this is the first tomato harvested in space,' " he said. "Then, I was pretty confident that I Velcroed it where I was supposed to Velcro it, and then I came back and it was gone."

Rubio estimated he spent between 8 and 20 hours of his own time searching for the lost fruit. (Whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables depends on who you ask. In the 19th century, the Supreme Court came down on the side of vegetables — sort of.)

"I wanted to find it mostly so I could prove, like, 'I did not eat the tomato,' " he said, and explained he never found it. "A proud moment of harvesting the first tomato in space became a self-inflicted wound of losing the first tomato in space."

Rubio said he hoped someone would find it one day — and that hope was finally realized more than eight months later.

"We might have found something that someone has been looking for for quite a while," astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli said in a NASA video talk from the ISS earlier this week.

"Our good friend Frank Rubio who headed home has been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato — but we can exonerate him: We found the tomato."

The crew laughed. No word on where it was hiding or what it looked like when it was discovered, though.

And now Frank Rubio walks the earth with a cleared name.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.