Every once in a while you hear a little snippet of a story and you think to yourself, I wish someone would write a book about that. I bet it’d be really interesting. Luckily for me, my wishes always seem to come true. For instance back in my virology-obsessed days I kept coming across casual throwaway references to HeLa, an immortal cell line cultivated from a woman’s cervical cancer cells back in the fifties that had since been used in everything from the creation of polio vaccine to AIDS research. I wondered who this woman was and how her cells had come to play such a crucial role in the health of humanity as a whole. Imagine my glee when I heard about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which turned out not only to satisfy my curiosity but became one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books.
Now, it’s happened again – with Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich, which is about one of the most audacious (and stupid) heists in American history: a bid to steal and sell lunar rocks from NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, orchestrated by an intern.
“Thad Roberts, a fellow in a prestigious NASA programme had an idea – a romantic, albeit crazy, idea. He wanted to give his girlfriend the moon. Literally. Thad convinced his girlfriend and another female accomplice, both NASA interns, to break into an impenetrable laboratory at NASA’s headquarters – past security checkpoints, and electronically locked door with cipher security codes and camera-lined hallways – and help him steal the most precious objects in the world: Apollo moon rocks from every moon landing in history. Was Thad Roberts – undeniably gifted, picked for one of the most competitive scientific posts imaginable – really what he seemed? And what does one do with an item so valuable that it’s illegal even to own? Based on meticulous research into thousands of pages of court records, FBI transcripts and documents, and scores of interviews with the people involved, Mezrich – with his signature high-velocity swagger – has reconstructed the madcap story of genius, love, and duplicity all centred on a heist that reads like a Hollywood thrill ride.”
I was pre-disposed to loving this book. Reason number one: it’s by Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires which I really enjoyed. Reason number two: I’m a NASA nut. I couldn’t wait to find out about these lucky “co-ops” at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the undergrads who get to intern at the space agency, and where they got to go and what they got to do while they were there.
And I think that’s the problem, because while I enjoyed Sex on the Moon, I spent almost all of it being utterly infuriated.
Thad Roberts had opportunities that I couldn’t even dream of. He got to work in the Lunar Sample Lab, the special facility that houses the moon rock the Apollo missions brought back to earth (if I was offered the opportunity to go anywhere at all on earth for one hour, that’d by my pick after the original Mission Control), and when news of the heist breaks, Roberts has just climbed out of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA’s astronauts practice working in zero gravity in the largest swimming pool in the United States. He actually has a chance of becoming an astronaut himself.
And what does it do with all this opportunity? He uses it to steal the most precious materials on earth, moon rocks, samples actually collected by hand by Apollo astronauts, and tries to offload them over the internet so he can make a buck.
For a girl who was giddy for a week over a Kennedy Space Centre annual pass, this ridiculousness was hard to take.
Sex on the Moon is very sympathetic, and I couldn’t stomach the whole “he’s just a nice guy who did something impulsive and stupid” defense. Robert’s heist was as meticulously executed as Ethan Hunt’s trip to get the NOC list from Langley in Mission Impossible – this wasn’t a prank, it was a crime.
Mezrich draws Roberts as a man who idly fantasized about how one would break into NASA’s labs without any real intention of ever doing it (in my mind’s eye I saw him pressing “Send” on his e-mail advertising the rocks and then giggling nervously like a schoolgirl who’s just planted a thumb-tack on their teacher’s seat) but then suddenly finds himself pushed over the line into reality and – How did I get here? – at the keypad outside the secure lab. It wasn’t, Mezrich would have us believe, as if he meant to do it.
Yeah… Except that a few days before, Roberts had brushed a special compound on the buttons of that keypad and combined with the backlight he had with him now, he could “read” the access code. And in a motel a few miles away he and his accomplices had set up their own receiving laboratory, a room filled with enough plastic sheeting, tools and latex gloves to make a serial killer proud. And he had buyers ready. So.
And although the rocks were recovered, notebooks in which an eminent NASA scientist had recorded his life’s work never were, but this is swept aside in Sex on the Moon because, hey, Roberts doesn’t remember seeing those during all the moon rock-stealing so that’s alright. The reader is also constantly reminded that NASA had deemed the samples “trash” (they had already been used in scientific research and so couldn’t be used in further research – but they were still priceless lunar rocks) except they weren’t in a trash can, were they? They were in a secure facility that Roberts did not have legal access to, and he was well aware of the laws relating to lunar rocks. (It’s illegal to privately own as much as a particle of them.)
A quick google of what Thad Roberts is up to now confirms what I’d begun to suspect by the end of Sex of the Moon: he’s doing just fine. Unlike his former employers, the owner of the notebooks and the US taxpayers who funded the FBI operation that took him down and the federal prison that housed him during his punishment – and the multi-billion dollar Apollo program in the first place – Roberts appears to have suffered no permanent ill-effects which, of course, only compounds the reader’s annoyance. These days he’s doing TedX talks and working on quantum space theory, so at least he’s putting his brains to better use now than he did in his youth.
But back to the book. Janet Maslin of the New York Times has called Mezrich a baloney artist for the approach he takes to non-fiction, which is to jazz it up so that these tales read more like breathless novels than anything else. Mezrich interprets the facts rather than presents them, but he effectively admits that he does so that doesn’t bother me, and I enjoy his writing style.
What does bother me about Sex on the Moon is that Mezrich – like the version of Roberts he’s presented – doesn’t seem to think any real wrong-doing took place here. I was just waiting for the line, “Well.. it wasn’t like anybody died!”
I’d just about recommend this book, but I’d suspect you’d enjoy it a lot more if you’re not an armchair astronaut.