Lost and found first tomato ever grown in space: NASA shares 'saucy' story and unseen photos

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Astronaut Frank Rubio recently shared the story of “two rogue tomatoes” that went missing aboard the International Space Station (ISS) nearly a year ago. These tomatoes, or to appropriately say, the remains of those tomatoes, have now been found by the ISS crew — finally convincing everyone that Rubio never ate them during his period on the ISS.

In the lack of gravity, Rubio had accidentally lost the fruit while harvesting for the eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System (XROOTS) experiment, a soil-less plant experiment.

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He conducted the experiment aboard the space station in 2022, during his record-breaking 371-day mission. These were the first tomatoes ever grown in space or harvested on the ISS. They were found by the ISS crew members a few days back. However, it was not revealed where ecxactly they found these lost tomatoes.

Check out NASA’s latest image here

Here’s how the tomatoes look like now:


Two rogue tomatoes were recovered after roaming on station for nearly a year.

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Two rogue tomatoes were recovered after roaming on station for nearly a year. (NASA)

The ‘saucy’ story

In an interview in October this year, Rubio said that when he lost those tomatoes, “a lot of people” accused him of “probably” eating them.

Recalling the incident, Rubio said, “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.'”

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“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 added. He estimated he spent between 8 and 20 hours of his own time searching for the lost fruit.

“I wanted to find it mostly so I could prove, like, ‘I did not eat the tomato,'” he said, explaining that 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,” he said.

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When tomatoes were found…

Months after Rubio’s return to Earth, Expedition 70 crew members closed this peculiar case. Nearly a year after the tomatoes disappeared, “they were found dehydrated and slightly squished”. The NASA said, “Other than some discolouration, it had no visible microbial or fungal growth.”

Announcing the news, the crew joked that Rubio did not eat the tomatoes as they suspected.


Will those tomatoes return to Earth?

“The rogue tomatoes found from the XROOTS experiment will not be returning to Earth for analysis as they were discarded, ” NASA said.

Why growing plants in space important?

Growing food aboard the International Space Station is one of the many research investigations underway for long-duration spaceflight missions to the Moon and Mars, the NASA said.

The US space agency added that the benefits of growing plants in space is not just about sustainability or providing food and other services on future space missions. Besides these, astronauts report there are psychological benefits to time spent gardening, increasing their quality of life in space, and boosting their morale.

“Research aboard the space station is advancing the technology and scientific knowledge needed to successfully grow plants in space and help humans push the boundaries of space travel. This work also helps efforts to improve plants grown for food and other important uses here on Earth,” the space agency said.

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Published: 17 Dec 2023, 03:41 PM IST

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