The case of the stolen moon rocks
You’ve probably never heard of Thad Roberts, the brilliant young NASA recruit who pulled off one of the most audacious heists in history when he tiptoed out of the Johnson Space Center one rainy Texas night in 2003 with a 600-pound safe containing $20 million in moon rocks.
Even Ben Mezrich, the gonzo-inspired biographer of Ivy League geeks (Bringing Down the House), drew a blank when Roberts called him out of the blue following an eight-year prison sentence. Mezrich fields hundreds of such calls these days, thanks in part to the success of the Oscar-nominated film The Social Network, based on his bestseller about the founding of Facebook, The Accidental Billionaires.
“Everyone who does something kind of crazy calls me, so I get like 10 of these a day and 99 percent of the time it isn’t something I can use,” Mezrich says by phone from Boston. “But this one was different.”
If Mezrich’s hunch is correct, you will recognize Thad Roberts from the talk show circuit by summer’s end and, despite yourself, you’ll either love him or hate him, all because of Sex on the Moon, Mezrich’s stranger-than-fiction, true-life thriller of a man who went where no man has gone before.
For a participatory journalist like Mezrich, who describes himself as “Hunter S. Thompson without the guns, alcohol and drugs,” the Roberts story ticked all the boxes: a charismatic dreamer with a troubled past, a Romeo-and-Juliet love story, a geek-alicious high-tech setting, an ingenious Oceans 11-style heist—and perhaps the most boneheaded mistake any man ever made to impress a girl.
Even better, it was a journalist’s Holy Grail: a truly uncovered story.
“It was completely covered up; there was nothing on it,” Mezrich says. “NASA never wanted this story to get out. In prison, Thad was basically strong-armed not to talk about it. Nobody knew the story.”
It goes like this: Roberts, a working-class Mormon, is ostracized by his parents for having premarital sex. He and his girlfriend soon marry and plunge deep into debt while Thad, a triple major in physics, geology and anthropology, studies hard to earn a spot as a NASA co-op, essentially an astronaut intern. Once at Johnson Space Center, Roberts reinvents himself from loser to winner by daring to take risks, thus becoming a leader of the co-ops.
Thad’s marriage is on shaky ground when he catches a glimpse of a cache of invaluable moon rocks, now considered waste by NASA because they’ve been contaminated by scientific study, and soon becomes obsessed. When a risk-taking new co-op captures his heart, the two cook up a scheme with a third ally to steal the lunar samples, sell them to a collector in Antwerp, Belgium, for $100,000, and disappear into private research.
Unfortunately for Thad, the buyer is well aware that it is illegal to traffic in moon rocks and tips the FBI to the scheme. The night before they’re busted, the daring couple spend the night in an Orlando hotel room with lunar samples from Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 moon walk tucked under their mattress—hence the book’s intriguing title.
Mezrich didn’t know what to expect when he met Roberts in a Utah hotel lobby near where Roberts is now completing his Ph.D.
“First of all, the kid’s a genius, absolutely a genius,” Mezrich says. “He was this charismatic, incredibly smart guy and he had done something incredibly stupid out of love. What was interesting was how complex his personality was. He wasn’t just this guy who stole something to make money; he was on his way to being an astronaut, to achieving his dream. That made him different from all of the other characters I’d written about.”
Mezrich spent months obtaining the voluminous FBI file on the case through the Freedom of Information Act, including transcripts of conversations by wired FBI undercover agents that add authenticity to much of the dialogue.
“When you’re interviewing a guy like this, your first question is, how much of this is true?” he says. “Thad felt his sentence was very harsh, that he was very unfairly characterized by the FBI and others. He did steal a 600-pound safe full of moon rocks, but at the same time, they got them back. For him, it was almost like a college prank. But NASA didn’t look at it that way at all.”
True to his gonzo ethos, Mezrich managed to tour NASA with remote help from Roberts. “They didn’t know I was writing the book and I got this Level 9 tour,” he recalls. “While I was walking around NASA, I was texting back and forth with Thad and he’d be like, ‘Now go to the back of the room, there’s a door there, go through that door, take a left, that’s the room! ’ So I got to see everything with him guiding me.”
Mezrich received pushback from NASA, which labeled him persona non grata at the Johnson Space Center. The women involved shut him out as well, having moved on with their lives. It will be no surprise to the author if critics lodge their usual objections to the way he reinvents dialogue and weaves whole cloth from random threads of speculation. He’s used to controversy, he says. It comes with the territory. It’s not bad for sales either.
“There are always going to be a million articles about the form of nonfiction that I write,” he says. “But I’m very clear up front [about] exactly what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it. This story follows very closely with the facts. It’s written like a thriller but it’s very, very true.”
Will readers embrace Roberts?
“He’s an interesting guy,” Mezrich says. “I think when he starts going on TV, people are going to be fascinated by him. Some will think he’s awful and he’s a thief; others are going to see him as a romantic character. I think he’s somewhere in the middle.”