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Review: 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, 2011
hardcover, 320 pp.
ISBN 978-0-385-53392-8

Why do we romanticize some crimes? We vilify many offenses, but sometimes we turn the tables and root for the criminal over the victim and the police. That seems particularly true in the case of the heist, be it of money, jewels, artwork, or other valuables, in fact or fiction. Perhaps it’s the interest in the intricate planning for theft, overcoming the obstacles along the way, or the rationalization involved in justifying the heist, from righting a wrong to demonstrating one’s love. In any case, regardless of the ethics of the affair, we identify with the robber and not with the robbed.

What would drive someone like Roberts to try and steal some lunar rocks?

It’s that mindset that author Ben Mezrich is counting on in Sex on the Moon, his account of what the subtitle describes, with considerable hyperbole, as “the most audacious heist in history.” In 2002, Thad Roberts, a co-op student at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), and two of his fellow co-ops stole a safe from a lab at the center that contained a number of rocks returned from the Moon during the Apollo missions. Their intent was to sell the rocks, and they believed they had lined up a deal with a European collector whose representative they planned to meet in Orlando. Instead, they were arrested by the FBI. Roberts, as the ringleader of the theft, got a sentence of over eight years in prison.

But what would drive someone like Roberts to try and steal some lunar rocks? In the book—where Roberts is the central character—he is portrayed as someone trying to find his place in the world. Ostracized from his family and church, he is struggling to make ends meet for himself and his young wife while taking courses at the University of Utah when he, improbably, seizes on pursuing a career as an astronaut. Suddenly motivated, he pursues his new career goal with gusto, landing a coveted spot in JSC’s co-op program, despite being a few years older than the typical student. There, he ingratiates himself with both his fellow co-ops and JSC staff, and has all the appearances of a rising star.

However, all is not well with Roberts. His marriage becomes strained, as are his finances. When he learns that some lunar samples stored at JSC are considered “trash”—having been used for various research projects and thus no longer considered scientifically valuable—a plan to steal those rocks and sell them begins to germinate in his mind, which he rationalizes by arguing that this “trash” would otherwise sit forever in NASA’s vaults. (As the book notes, it wasn’t the first time he made such an argument: while at Utah he took some fossils that were stored out of public view so he could show them off to his friends.) The plan doesn’t take off, though, until he falls for a new co-op student. In effect, he ends up promising her the Moon, and intends to deliver.

Mezrich is perhaps best known as the author of The Accidental Billionaires, a book about the founding of Facebook that was later adapted into last year’s hit movie The Social Network; that screenplay won an Oscar while the movie was a Best Picture nominee. The book, though, proved to be controversial, with some questioning its accuracy and Mezrich’s technique of recreating dialogue. Mezrich, in a 2009 interview shortly after The Accidental Billionaires came out, defended his literary approach, saying, “I’m trying to create my own genre of nonfiction.”

Mezrich uses that same approach in Sex on the Moon, stating in the author’s note that prefaces the book that while the dialogue used extensively in the book is based on the “recollections of the participants I interviewed”, those events took place years ago and thus “some were re-created and compressed.” (Or, as a cynic might conclude, made up.) As a result, the book reads more like a dramatic novel than a conventional nonfiction account, something that might be readymade for a movie—and indeed, Sony Pictures picked up the movie rights to the book months ago, with the same producers who did The Social Network. (One wonders if the book’s salacious title—which comes from a passage in the book where Roberts tucks a stolen lunar rock under the mattress of a hotel bed before he and and his girlfriend have sex—has a better chance of surviving to the big screen than the relatively bland The Accidental Billionaires.)

It might be best to treat Sex on the Moon as a novelization of that infamous Moon rock heist: a dramatic story based on actual events, but not necessarily a balanced, objective account.

As for the participants he interviewed to derive the dialogue and story, Thad Roberts is front and center: he cooperated extensively with Mezrich for the book. Mezrich cites only a few other sources by name, including Gordon McWhorter, a Utah student who helped Roberts identify potential buyers of the stolen rocks and was also arrested; and Axel Emmermann, a Belgian mineral collector who exchanged emails with Roberts (operating under an alias) and tipped off the FBI. Beyond that, Mezrich largely refers to “many sources who have asked to remain anonymous.” That anonymity extends, oddly, to some of the key individuals in the book. Mezrich writes in the author’s note that some people’s names and characterizations have been altered to protect privacy, which one might think would refer to some of the more minor characters in the book. Yet he uses pseudonyms for some of the key individuals, including Roberts’s girlfriend (referred to in the book as “Rebecca” rather than her real name, Tiffany Fowler) and another accomplice (“Sandra” instead of Shae Saur), as well as Robert’s wife (“Sonya” rather than Kaydee), without any more explanation. Given that the identities of these people, and in some cases their actions, are in the public record, it makes the privacy argument difficult to accept, and also makes one wonder where else Mezrich is diverging from the truth.

It might be best to treat Sex on the Moon as a novelization of that infamous Moon rock heist: a dramatic story based on actual events, but not necessarily a balanced, objective account. (NASA’s view of these events, particularly from the point of view of Everett Gibson—the scientist whose safe was stolen and whose notebooks containing information on decades of research were lost in the theft—gets little attention in the book.) At best, the book offers a chance to see what Roberts was thinking as he went down the path that led to the theft and its aftermath. Hopefully, reading it won’t leave you rooting for or sympathetic to Roberts, but instead sad about the tragedy of a crime and its consequences.