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First tomato ever grown in space, lost 8 months ago, found by NASA astronauts

It has been one of the universe's greatest mysteries — the disappearance of the first tomato grown in space.

That is, until this week, when the seven astronauts at the International Space Station announced on the 25th anniversary of the orbiter that they found the rogue fruit.

"Well, we might have found something that someone had been looking for for quite awhile," NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli revealed.

The tomato was the first to be harvested and grown in space. It was grown in March by American astronaut Frank Rubio, who holds the record for longest spaceflight at 370 days. 

The red robin tomato was harvested as part of a NASA experiment to grow produce in space for longer-term missions in the future. Rubio said it was a proud moment, right up until the day he lost track of the fresh, fleshy food — a commodity up in space.

Astronaut Frank Rubio tending to tomato plants in the ISS
Astronaut Frank Rubio tending to tomato plants in the ISS NASA

"I harvested, I think, what was the first tomato in space, and I put it in a little bag," Rubio recalled in a NASA interview in October. He said he ended up taking the tomato out of the safety of the Ziploc bag to show some students the prized produce, but seemed to misplace it afterwards.

"I was pretty confident that I Velcroed it where I was supposed to Velcro it, and then I came back and it was gone," the scientist said.

Rubio said he unsuccessfully spent about 18 to 20 hours searching for the tomato, and assumed it would have "desiccated to the point where you couldn't tell what it was" and may have been tossed in the trash accidentally.

Because of the weightless nature of space, any object that is unsecured or not tied down is likely to float off. And in the ISS, which is larger than a six-bedroom house, there's bound to be a plethora of good hiding spots for a lone-ranger tomato.

A red robin tomato on a vine in the ISS
A red robin tomato growing on a vine in the ISS NASA

In the months since the juicy piece of produce vanished, some suspected Rubio actually ate the tomato — a claim he denied up until it was found.

"Hopefully somebody will find it someday, some little shriveled thing in a Ziploc bag and they can prove the fact that I did not eat the tomato in space," he half-joked, half-manifested in October.

And Moghbeli was indeed quick to clear Rubio's name after announcing the discovery.

"Our good friend, Frank Rubio, who headed home, has been blamed for quite awhile for eating the tomato, but we can exonerate him," she said.

Moghbeli didn't offer details on where the tomato was found, nor what condition it was in. But it's probably safe to assume it won't be featured in a gourmet meal anytime soon.

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