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The Case of the Missing Tomatoes

After several months, two tomatoes lost aboard the International Space Station have been found.

Frank Rubio aboard the ISS and in front of some contained tomato plants.

Koichi Wakata—Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/NASA/JSC

Astronaut Frank Rubio lost tomatoes he’d grown aboard the International Space Station. Months later, the tomatoes were found.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have finally solved a problem that vexed them for months: they’ve located two missing tomatoes.

The dwarf tomatoes were grown aboard the space station as part of ongoing research to see how well plants grow in space. But in March, shortly after U.S. astronaut Frank Rubio harvested the fruit, he lost it—which may be understandable, given that anything on the station that’s not tied down will float away.

“I put it in a little bag, and one of my crewmates was doing a [remote] event with some schoolkids, and I thought it’d be kind of cool to show the kids—‘Hey guys, this is [a] tomato harvested in space’,” Rubio said in October. “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 spent hours searching unsuccessfully for the tiny tomatoes. Meanwhile, other astronauts jokingly accused him of eating them. Then, in September, it was time for him to return to Earth. Because the ISS is a low-humidity environment, Rubio predicted the fruit would quickly shrivel and become unrecognizable.

Then, in December, the good news came. The two tomatoes had turned up.

“Our good friend Frank Rubio, who headed home [already], has been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato,” NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli said during a December 6 livestreamed event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ISS. “But we can exonerate him. We found the tomato.”

Mystery solved!

A hand holding two shriveled tomatoes in a clear plastic bag.

NASA/JSC

The tomatoes finally turned up, slightly worse for wear.

Did You Know?

Kevin O’Connell & Kevin Dav/NASA, © Ezthaiphoto/Dreamstime.com; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

NASA, the U.S. government space agency, has invented many things we’ve ended up using on Earth, including the technology that enables tiny cameras (which is why smartphones can take pictures).

Growing Beyond Earth

NASA/JSC, Peggy Whitson—NASA/JSC; Photo composite Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Astronauts grow food aboard the ISS as part of the aptly named Veggie program. So far, they’ve been able to cultivate several plants, including lettuce, cabbage, mustard leaves, kale, and tomatoes, testing different combinations of red and blue artificial light to see how the plants respond.

NASA and other space agencies are looking to a future in which astronauts spend long periods of time in space—living on the Moon or even traveling to Mars. For this to be possible, they’ll need to supplement the astronaut diet of pre-packaged foods with fresh vegetables.

And they’re getting some help. Growing Beyond Earth is a program in which middle school and high school students across the United States grow vegetables in plant habitats that are designed to be similar to those used on the ISS. Select students present the results of these experiments to NASA astronauts.

Home (Far) Away From Home

The International Space Station in orbit with Earth in the background.

© Naeblys/stock.adobe.com

People have been traveling into space for less than 65 years—not a long period of time in terms of human history. So it’s incredible that, today, astronauts from around the world live and work in space. You can learn more about the International Space Station at Britannica.

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