We all have character flaws. Some are large, some are small. Sometimes, what we do with those flaws — or allow them to do to us — can be decisive. Such was the case with Thad Roberts. One of his character flaws gave birth to an idea and then fed it to the point of an obsession. The end result was a seemingly impossible and wholly unparalleled crime, the theft of moon rocks from NASA.
Ben Mezrich provides a highly readable account of the caper in Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History. Mezrich not only shows how Roberts overcame the odds to have a promising science career and the chance of accomplishing his dream of being an astronaut, but what led him to throw it all away in an unimaginable and foolhardy way.
Despite being disowned by his strict Mormon family at age 19, Roberts pursued degrees in geology, geophysics and physics at the University of Utah, hoping to become an astronaut. Happily married, Roberts was devoted to his studies and even formed a student astronomical society and volunteered at the Utah Museum of Natural History. There, though, a character flaw revealed itself. When he realized that some fossils in the museum’s collection would simply sit unnoticed in containers, he decided to bring them home and make them his own.
Roberts was fortunate enough to be accepted into NASA’s Cooperative Education Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Leaving his wife in Utah to become one of the “co-ops,” Roberts became a leader among the others, viewed as an adventurer and risk-taker. While fascinated by much of the co-op program, Roberts was particularly intrigued when one of his mentors told him the lunar material in his safe was considered “trash” by NASA because they had been used for experiments and outside the agency. He began pondering how it might be possible to steal some of those moon rocks, among NASA’s most highly protected materials. As the idea grew, it was first to come up with money. (At his eventual trial, the 101.5 grams of lunar material he stole was appraised at $5 million, a figure some considered low.) By his third year of the program, though, Roberts met and fell in love with a younger intern, “Rebecca,” and decided to give her the moon, literally.
Before the theft, Roberts posted on-line notices on the sites of various mineral collector groups as “Orb Robinson.” He eventually reached an agreement with a Belgian mineral collector so in July 2002, working with Rebecca and a younger intern, “Sandra,” the three made off with a 600-pound safe containing not only rocks from each Apollo moon landing but a bit of the meteorite NASA scientists believed provided evidence of life on Mars. The problem was, the collector had immediately notified the FBI and Roberts walked into the midst of a sting operation. Mezrich unfolds the tale in a flowing and engaging fashion, taking readers inside not only Johnson Space Center but the growth of the idea to steal the “trash” rocks and the sting operation.
Despite its readability — or perhaps because of it — there are two problems with the book. First, apparently because Roberts was his primary source, Mezrich admits the story is told largely from his perspective. Were Rebecca and Sandra the willing adventurers that Mezrich portrays or did Roberts exert some sort of Svengali-like influence on them? The book leaves unclear the extent to which Roberts’ version of events comports with objective reality. The second issue is more important and one that arose with each of Mezrich’s prior nonfiction works. He uses an amplified form of “creative nonfiction” or “literary journalism.” As Mezrich says in an author’s note that opens the book, Sex on the Moon contains dialogue that has been “re-created and compressed” and certain names, characterizations and physical descriptions “have been altered to protect privacy.”
Mezrich used the same approach in both Bringing Down the House, the basis for the movie 21, and The Accidental Billionaires, the basis for the Oscar-winning The Social Network. In fact, on his web site Mezrich says he has “created his own highly addictive genre of nonfiction.” But many readers will pause and wonder how far this goes.
Here, for example, even Rebecca and Sandra aren’t the real names of the women involved and, as far as I can determine, he changes their physical descriptions and the age of at least one of them. This is despite the fact Rebecca (actually Tiffany Fowler) and Sandra (actually Shae Saur) pleaded guilty in federal court and their names are a matter of public record. Combined with “re-created dialogue” and descriptions that often feel novelistic, at what point do such changes push a work from nonfiction to “based on a true story” status? (A phrase that seems somewhat appropriate given that the film rights to the book were optioned in January to Sony Pictures.)
Some criticize Mezrich’s techniques, even going so far as to call it dishonest or the works “nonfictionish.” Undoubtedly, Sex on the Moon is an entertaining and enjoyable read. For readers, though, the question may become the extent to which its entertainment value undercuts their trust in the author and, hence, the story.