Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sex on the Moon

I was up late last night reading Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History by Ben Mezrich (2011, Doubleday).  I couldn't put it down until I finished it.

It's the true story of Thad Roberts, a charismatic NASA geology intern at the Johnson Space Center in Houston who, along with fellow interns Tiffany Fowler and Shae Saur (they were given pseudonyms in the book of Rebecca and Sandra), stole moon rocks from a safe in a NASA lab in the summer of 2002.  They then attempted to sell the rocks to Belgian mineral collector Axel Emmermann who tipped off the FBI.  They were obviously caught (even the unauthorized possession of irreplaceable moon rocks is against the law) and these supposedly brilliant interns were dumb as stumps as criminals.

The title Sex on the Moon, by the way, came from Thad Roberts supposedly placing a stolen moon rock under the mattress before having sex with his girlfriend Tiffany.

The book was an easy read and suspenseful (like I said, I couldn't put it down until I finished it).  It would make a good movie (the book was clearly written with that goal in mind).  It is, however, full of hyperbole ("the most audacious heist in history", overly-inflated valuations of the moon rocks at "close to a trillion", all the interns are "brilliant", etc.).

More disturbing to me was the glamorization of Thad Roberts and his accomplices.  Mezrich gives the impression Roberts was doing it for love, for adventure, to give his girlfriend the Moon (he was married to another woman while screwing Tiffany, by the way).  Tiffany was blinded by his charisma (what, women love charismatic assholes and make bad decisions, who knew?).  His "friend" Shae's participation is harder to understand, one gets the impression of an unrequited love triangle.  Anyway, it seems to me that they were simply greedy bastards without an ounce of  ethics - typically known as common thieves when they're not middle-class college kids.  They were in it for the money, plain and simple.  First thing they wanted to do was sell the rocks for a profit.

Mezrich also tries to make Thad a sympathetic character.  He seemed to me to be a classic sociopath.  He used people, he stole minerals and fossils while a student at the University of Utah before the moon rock theft, and he rationalized everything he did as a good thing or simply a prank.  One doesn't meticulously plan a theft from a secure NASA lab, arrange an international buyer of contraband, enlist accomplices, and carry out a slew of felonies as a "prank".  He betrayed the trust of NASA, of the scientists who worked with and mentored him in the opportunity of a lifetime, and destroyed one scientist's research (Dr. Everett Gibson who was working with those rocks).  If I was the judge, I would have given him significantly more than 100 months in prison.

From all accounts I've read, Roberts still doesn't really appreciate the magnitude of his crime.  One can Google his name and see pictures of him smiling and posing with the book's author for publicity photos.  Doesn't seem to have much of a sense of remorse or shame about what he did barely 10 years ago.  It bothers me that people like him can profit from their crimes (at least I borrowed the book from the public library and didn't purchase it myself).

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