Gorilla suits, music videos, and Space Olympics: when it comes to passing time on the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts have shown themselves to have a good sense of humor. A good thing, too, as the latest ISS shenanigans stirred up some drama, when a missing tomato led the team to believe that one member of the crew had secretly eaten the research fruit. After eight months, the errant tomato has been found, clearing the name of the astronaut who fell under suspicion.
“Our good friend Frank Rubio, who headed home, has been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato,” said NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli during a livestream. “But we can exonerate him. We found the tomato.”
The tomato in question was a Red Robin dwarf variety being grown as part of the Veg-05 experiment. Its goal was to study crop growth, nutrient composition, microbial food safety, flavor, and psychological benefits for the crew onboard the space station, reports NASA, as well as looking at the influence of light quality. But then came a dash of scandal.
Rubio was part of a team harvesting the tomatoes in March 2023, but after receiving a sample contained within a Ziploc bag, he lost sight of the tomato as it floated off.
And so began a months-long mystery.
"I spent so many hours looking for that thing," said Rubio during a livestream in September. "I'm sure the desiccated tomato will show up at some point and vindicate me, years in the future."
Fortunately for Rubio’s reputation, it was only another couple of months before the tomato finally turned up, clearing his good name. If you’re wondering how you could lose a tomato in a Ziploc bag in a contained space, the truth is that losing objects is a big problem when you’re working in zero gravity.
The astronauts describe the weightlessness as something you can’t train for on Earth. Bar parabolic flights, which use periods of controlled free-fall to create zero-gravity-like conditions, you really can’t imagine what it’s like on the ISS until you get there.
Many tools are contained in bags, but when you open a Ziploc to get one thing out, anything else contained in there is likely to try and make an escape. Lost items usually go missing for a few minutes to hours, often turning up around air vents, but the tomato lasted an impressive eight months on the lam.
Move aside, sundried. 2023 is the year of the Moon desiccated tomato.