The ISS missing tomato scandal has come to a close

Watch NASA's official recap of the case.
Tomato plant grown on ISS
Frank Rubio's dwarf tomatoes were missing for over a year aboard the ISS. NASA

For nearly a year, the world waited with baited breath for closure to a whodunit orbiting over 250 miles above everyone’s heads. Last week, the wait came to an end, clearing astronaut Frank Rubio’s name in the process. NASA posted a brief rundown of the saga detailing the multi-month search for the MIA produce.

Whatever happened to the disappearing dwarf tomatoes?

Back in November 2022, the International Space Station received a cargo delivery containing materials for Veg-05, a project aimed at furthering NASA researchers’ and astronauts’ understanding of hydroponic and aeroponic growing methods in microgravity, without soil. Access to fresh food will be an absolute necessity during humans’ long-term missions to the moon, Mars, and perhaps one day even beyond. Regular grocery runs won’t exactly be an option for the first residents of a potential Martian base, so growing healthy, nutritious produce like tomatoes will be a must.

Veg-05 offered astronauts a chance to investigate various growing techniques, which ultimately resulted in an  impressive yield of dwarf tomatoes. At the time, astronauts including Frank Rubio intended to eventually taste test their ISS garden bounty. After picking the first two fruits off the vine, Rubio reportedly sealed them in a Ziploc bag and “velcroed it where I was supposed to velcro it,” he recounts in NASA’s video.

“And then I came back, and it was gone,” he continued.

While missing items are often recovered within the many ISS intake vents, Rubio estimates he spent somewhere between 18 and 20 hours of his spare time searching for the missing tomatoes, all to no avail. All the while, lighthearted rumors began to spread aboard the ISS that he simply ate the snacks without telling anyone. Rubio eventually returned to Earth on September 27 having broken the record for longest time spent in space (371 days), but still an accused man. During a subsequent December 6 livestream, however, ISS’s current residents broke the news: Rubio’s innocence could finally be confirmed.

[Related: Microgravity tomatoes, yogurt bacteria, and plastic eating microbes are headed to the ISS.]

“We can exonerate him; we found the tomato[es],” astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli said during last week’s broadcast.

Almost a year after their disappearance, the two tiny tomatoes were rediscovered—dehydrated, somewhat squishy, but very much intact and in their original Ziploc container.

That said, Rubio wasn’t the only one to miss out on eating the space-grown produce. In April 2023, NASA announced that while astronauts successfully grew their tomatoes, an unexpected risk of fungal and microbial contamination prevented anyone from actually tasting the final products. For what it’s worth, however, Rubio’s rediscovered tomatoes reportedly displayed no outward signs of contamination—perhaps a bit of cosmic karma.

UPDATE 12/19/23 9:04AM: In an email to PopSci, a NASA spokesperson confirmed the tomatoes’ hideaway locale:

The tomatoes were found behind the Earth-facing (or forward) hatch of the Harmony module of the International Space Station. The hatch holds the pressurized mating adapter, which allows visiting spacecraft to dock to the microgravity laboratory. Harmony is a connecting point between other modules of the space station, and houses crew quarters, as well as provides electrical power and electronic data for the orbital complex.