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Moon rock theft leads to thrill ride in ‘Sex on the Moon’

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SEX ON THE MOON
THE AMAZING STORY BEHIND
THE MOST AUDACIOUS HEIST
IN HISTORY

By Ben Mezrich

Doubleday, 308 pages, $26.95

Updated: July 17, 2011 2:28AM



What kind of 25-year-old would break into NASA and steal the most precious minerals on Earth? Meet Thad Roberts, a genius so head-over-heels in love with his girlfriend that he tried to steal the moon, or at least the rocks from it, just to impress her. In Sex on the Moon, author Ben Mezrich details the riveting account of how one of the most improbable heists in history went down.

After winning a spot in the Johnson Space Center Cooperative Program in Houston, Thad worked as a co-op in the life sciences department. He soon learned that once a lunar sample has been used in an experiment and then returned, NASA considers it “trash” because it’s no longer a pristine research sample. While they may have lost their scientific value, the rocks are still worth a fortune to a collector. But Thad’s not really motivated by the money; it’s the fantasy of stealing the rocks, working out the plan, that captivates him.

Had he not met a beautiful young co-op named Rebecca, Thad likely would have kept the idea of stealing the moon rocks as just an idea. He was a rising star in the JSC program and was on track to a job offer at NASA after he graduated from the University of Utah. He might have even realized his dream of becoming an astronaut some day. But love can do funny things to a person. Thad has a passionate love affair with Rebecca, cheating on his estranged wife, a high school sweetheart he married at 19. Rebecca acts as a catalyst for Thad, spurring the heist into a reality when he decides to take their romance to a new level. “Rebecca, I want to give you the moon,” he tells her, tears in the corners of his eyes as he reveals the plan.

Rebecca, another co-op named Sandra, and stoner Gordon (names were changed), a pal from UT, become Thad’s partners in the heist. He devises a plan to break into Building 31, which houses the moon rocks at the JSC. While aspects of the plan are ingenious, most of it will leave you wondering why NASA isn’t more secure. At one point, he and Rebecca use a dolly to wheel a 600-pound safe right out of the lab and into the back of their getaway car — a Jeep Cherokee.

Prior to the heist a sale had been arranged with a Belgium mineral collector by the name of Axel Emmermann. Unbeknownst to Thad, Emmermann was suspicious from the start and contacted the FBI in Florida. A sting operation eventually landed Thad an eight-year prison sentence in 2003. The girls got probation. Gordon also went to jail.

Thad’s ultimate demise is one of the most unsettling things about Mezrich’s tale. It’s hard to watch such a gifted, compelling character self-destruct. While it’s obvious he is caught up in his feelings for Rebecca, something even deeper appears to be driving him head-first into this wild and crazy scheme destined to fail. Despite his accomplishments, Thad can never quite shake the deep-seated insecurity that he doesn’t belong. It never feels like he’s being himself, but rather some character designed to impress those around him. When it came to the heist, Thad decided to become James Bond. Not only would he make off with the moon rocks, he’d get the girl as well. In reality, the role cost him everything.

Mezrich, who wrote the bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, the story of how Facebook was founded and the basis for the hit movie “The Social Network,” specializes in writing about young geniuses with questionable ethics and complicated motives. Sony has already purchased the film rights to Sex on the Moon. If Thad Roberts is as compelling a character on the big screen as he is on the page, Sony could have another hit on its hands.

Sex on the Moon is a fast and furious read, powered along by Mezrich’s desire never to take his eyes off the story. There’s no need to diverge into a lengthy history of NASA or breakdown of a moon rock. He’s already got the goods, and he knows it.



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