'Sex on the Moon': A lunar-tic's heist

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SEX ON THE MOON: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, by Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 308 pp., $26.95

In "The Accidental Billionaires," Ben Mezrich told the story of Mark Zuckerberg, a socially maladroit Harvard computer whiz who may or may not have stolen the idea of Facebook from a pair of strapping jocks (it was the basis for the movie "The Social Network"). Mezrich's new book, "Sex on the Moon," is also about a preternaturally bright young man, but one whose felonious pursuits are not in doubt. Thad Roberts was a NASA intern who decided to steal the moon -- or portions of it, at least. In 2002, he and two fellow interns broke into a lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and managed to boost a 600-pound safe containing valuable moon rocks -- worth up to $5,000 a gram -- from the Apollo missions. It was not a very wise move, and landed him in jail for nearly eight years.

The best thing about this rather pointless book is its title, which will surely compel a few readers to give it a whirl. Mezrich writes about Roberts' follies with a mixture of gee-whiz gusto and purplish pathos. Roberts comes off as a likable show-off, up to a point. A debt-ridden University of Utah student -- raised in a strict Mormon household, he was booted from home when he confessed to having premarital sex -- Roberts discovered his scientific vocation and won a highly competitive place in NASA's Cooperative Education Program.

Like Harvard was for Zuckerberg, NASA becomes a proving ground for Roberts, a place to craft new versions of himself. At NASA, Mezrich writes, "he'd become this adventurous, impressive character -- everyone knew who he was, everyone wanted to be around him. And yet he knew, deep down, that it was partially an act. It was a reinvention, because deep down, he was this shy, messed-up kid who'd been kicked out of his house, who'd gotten married too young, who wanted to be an astronaut but probably would never have the chance."

His experiences at NASA are heady: He trains in the vast underwater pool that simulates outer space; he flies in a zero gravity plane. Seeming fantasies -- a flirtation with a co-worker turns into a full-blown affair -- become reality.

Why not steal moon rocks? Roberts slowly hatches his plan and we hear, through Mezrich's increasingly breathless ventriloquism, Roberts' self-justifications. He was broke. NASA considered these particular rocks to be "trash," which didn't quite make them useless for research, but in Roberts' mind made them fair game. He wanted to give his new love "a piece of the moon." Here, he presumed, was a victimless crime. The heist itself was relatively quick and easy: Roberts, using his cover as a "co-op," entered the lab at night and nonchalantly wheeled the large safe to his getaway car on a dolly. Makes you wonder about security at U.S. government facilities.

It was a plan that couldn't go wrong, but did. Roberts, under the name "Orb Robinson," cast around on the Internet for a buyer, and found an interested party in Belgium, a member of the Mineralogy Club of Antwerp named Axel Emmermann. The Belgian had his own fantasies, about playing the hero in a law-and-order operation. Which is more or less what happened: Emmermann contacted the FBI, which set up a sting operation. A pretend buyer arranged a meeting in Orlando, where Roberts was apprehended, but not before having a motel frolic with his lover and accomplice. He put some moon rocks under the bed and -- get it? -- "Sex on the Moon."

The febrile nuttiness of Roberts' scheme has its charms, but very few people saw it that way. NASA was not amused, even if its lax security was partly to blame. Roberts, to his shock, was treated like a serious criminal. And his seemingly innocent jape all but destroyed nearly 30 years of work by a NASA scientist, whose research notes were lost in the theft. (The specimens themselves were contaminated, and thus rendered useless.) At the sentencing, the judge read Roberts the riot act, sentencing him to 100 months in jail. "Sex on the Moon" ends with Roberts getting out of jail after serving his term, and vowing to continue his scientific pursuits.

In Zuckerberg, Mezrich found a potent symbol of the disconnect in our connected lives. The altogether slight misadventures of Thad Roberts offer no such revelation.

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