NASA astronaut Frank Rubio checks tomato plants inside the International Space Station in October 2022. The tomatoes were grown without soil using hydroponic techniques to demonstrate space agricultural methods.

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Perhaps nowhere in the universe is a fresh, ripe tomato more valuable than on the International Space Station, where astronauts live for months at a time subsisting mainly on prepackaged, shelf-stable goods.

That’s why astronaut Frank Rubio became the central figure in a lighthearted whodunnit that has taken months to solve.

After Rubio harvested one of the first tomatoes ever grown in space earlier this year, according to the astronaut, he admitted he misplaced it.

“I put it in a little bag, and one of my crewmates was doing a (public) 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,’” Rubio said during an October media event. “I was pretty confident that I Velcroed it where I was supposed to Velcro it … and then I came back and it was gone.”

In the microgravity environment of space, anything not anchored to a wall is at risk of floating away — destined to spend eternity hidden behind a nook or cranny within the football field-size orbiting laboratory and its labyrinthian passageways.

Rubio said he probably spent eight to 20 hours of his own free time just searching for that tomato.

“Unfortunately — because that’s just human nature — a lot of people are like, ‘He probably ate the tomato,’” Rubio said. “And I wanted to find it mostly so I could prove like I did not eat the tomato.”

But he never found it.

Rubio returned to Earth on September 27 with the precious produce still lost aboard the space station.

It remained lost — until now.

During a Wednesday news conference, members of the seven-person crew remaining on the space station revealed they had finally located the tomato.

Rubio had “been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato,” NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli said. “But we can exonerate him.”

Tomato on top of a historic mission

The astronauts did not reveal where the tomato was or specify what state the produce was in when found.

Rubio surmised in October that it had probably already shriveled into an unrecognizable rot.

Due to the humidity at the space station, “it probably desiccated to the point where you couldn’t tell what it was,” Rubio said.

Case closed.

Rubio’s return to Earth in September was a historic moment. His stay on the space station — which lasted more than a year — set a record for the longest a US astronaut has ever spent in microgravity.

Rubio originally expected to spend only six months aboard the International Space Station. Instead, he logged 371 days following the discovery of a coolant leak coming from his original ride — a Russian Soyuz spacecraft — while it was docked to the orbiting outpost.

In his October interview, Rubio acknowledged how arduous moments of the journey were.

“I kind of allowed myself a day to feel sad and sorry for myself, and then I try to really make a conscious decision to say OK let’s have a good attitude and let’s just try to do the best job possible,” Rubio said of learning his stay would be extended by another six months.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted the percentage humidity on the space station.