In an interview this fall following his return to Earth from the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio shared a little mission anecdote that had us gripped: after he’d harvested one of the first tomatoes grown in space and bagged it up for a presentation, the bag and its contents went missing. With no trace of the fruit, the other astronauts jokingly accused Rubio of eating it. Then, eight months later at the beginning of December, the lost tomato reappeared. A photo shared by NASA now shows there were actually two tomatoes in the rogue sample — and, all things considered, they don’t look half bad.
While a tomato left to rot on Earth isn’t a pleasant thing to come across, Rubio’s tomatoes just look a bit dried out. “Other than some discoloration, it had no visible microbial or fungal growth,” NASA wrote in a blog post.
One small step for tomatoes, one giant leap for plant-kind. 🍅
Two rogue tomatoes were recovered after roaming on station for nearly a year. NASA Astronaut Frank Rubio accidentally lost the fruit while harvesting for XROOTS, a soil-less plant experiment. https://t.co/ymAP24fxaX pic.twitter.com/AeIV8i6QKR
— ISS Research (@ISS_Research) December 14, 2023
NASA has for years been experimenting with ways to grow food on the ISS and studying how the space environment affects plant growth. The red dwarf tomatoes were grown as part of a program called the eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System, or XROOTS, which uses a combination of hydroponic and aeroponic techniques instead of soil. Rubio, who was on the ISS for a record-breaking 371 days before his return in September 2023, harvested a batch of the tomatoes in March to be sent back to Earth and examined for the VEG-05 study.
As for the sample Rubio hung onto, which he intended to show to schoolkids in an event a crewmember had planned, the astronaut said the tomatoes simply disappeared. “I was pretty confident that I Velcroed it where I was supposed to Velcro it, and then I came back and it was gone,” he said. Rubio said he spent “eight to 20 hours” looking for it, to no avail. They were eventually found behind the Earth-facing hatch of the ISS's Harmony module, a NASA spokesperson told Engadget.
The Harmony module, pictured above in 2021 with astronaut Megan McArthur inside, acts like a crossroads, port and “utility hub” on the orbiting station. Its hatch provides access to the pressurized mating adapter, where spacecraft carrying cargo or crews, like SpaceX's Dragon, dock to the ISS. The months-old tomatoes were discarded after being discovered.
Update, December 20 2023, 11:28AM ET: This story has been updated to include new information from NASA on where the missing tomatoes were found.