The boyfriend's lunatic heist

Thad Roberts stole 100 pieces of the moon from NASA, all to impress a woman

The boyfriend's lunatic heist

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Boston author Ben Mezrich, 42, has made his name (and fortune) by crafting suspenseful, bestselling and film-friendly accounts of clever young people armed with daring, ambition, cutting-edge technological ideas and—often enough—a certain insouciance about legal niceties. His Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions (2002) became the successful 2008 movie 21, while The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal (2009), about social media pioneer Mark Zuckerberg, was turned into the Oscar-winning film The Social Network. Mezrich’s latest book, which will be released on July 12, is Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, which describes how Thad Roberts led three other NASA interns in the 2002 theft of 100 pieces of incalculably valuable lunar rock from the space agency—a crime committed primarily to impress his girlfriend.

As much as he likes writing fiction, Mezrich thinks non-fiction provides “great stories”—if you can find them. That’s more easily done now than earlier in his career, he adds in an interview: “Ever since 21 and The Social Network, every genius kid who pulls something crazy emails or calls me.” But everything is still “all about the story,” Mezrich says, and he sifts everything he hears to find “something compelling enough that I want to become a part of it, for as long as it takes to get inside. Sex on The Moon is certainly one of those stories. Thad reached out to me through mutual friends; he’d just gotten out of prison and wanted to tell his story.” It was an immediately appealing project. “It was really something I had never heard about, and had all the elements I look for. I’ve always wanted to write about NASA—not the NASA of the ’60s but the NASA of today.”

That was only the start of a long slog. “I had to get deep inside Thad’s character, and he is extremely complex. It took a long time to gain his trust, but also to get to the real story beneath all the layers.” And Roberts was the co-operative part of the story. “It was tough working my way into NASA because NASA didn’t really want me to write this book. I also had to file with the FBI to get the file case, and I had to get all the court documents to corroborate what Thad was telling me.” The result is one of the summer’s best reads, part high-stakes Ocean’s Eleven, part crazy love story.

Exclusive excerpt

It had to be the strangest getaway in history.

Thad Roberts tried to control his nerves as he stared up through the windshield of the idling four-wheel-drive Jeep. The rain was coming down in violent grey sheets, so fierce and thick he could barely make out the bright red traffic light hanging just a few feet in front of him. He had been sitting there for what seemed like forever; a long stretch of pavement serpentined into the grey mist behind him, winding back past a half-dozen other traffic lights—all of which he’d had to wait through, in exactly the same fashion. Even worse, between the lights he’d had to keep the Jeep at an agonizing five miles per hour—a veritable crawl along the desolate, rain-swept streets of the tightly controlled compound. It was unbelievably hard to drive at five miles per hour, especially when your neurons were going off like fireworks and your heart felt like it was going to blow right through your rib cage. But five miles per hour was the mandatory speed limit of the compound—posted every few yards on signs by the road—and at five miles per hour, once you hit one red light, you were going to hit them all.

Thad’s fingers whitened against the Jeep’s steering wheel as he watched the red glow, willing it to change to green. He wanted nothing more than to gun the engine, put his foot right through the floor, break the speed limit, and get the hell out of there. But he knew that there were cameras everywhere—that the entire getaway was being filmed and broadcast on more than a dozen security consoles. For this to work, he had to stay calm, obey the rules. He had to appear as if he belonged.

He took a deep breath, let the red glow from the traffic light splash across his cheeks. Only a few more seconds. He used the opportunity to toss a quick glance toward the passenger seat—which didn’t help at all. Sandra looked even more terrified than he felt. Her face was ivory white, her eyes like saucers. He wanted to say something to calm her down, but he couldn’t think of the words. She was pretty, with blondish-brown hair; even younger than Thad, barely 19 years old. Maybe not the ideal accomplice for something like this—but she was an electronics specialist, and she had practically begged to be a part of the scheme.

Thad shifted his eyes toward the centre “seat” between them, and almost smiled at the sight of his girlfriend crouched down beneath the dashboard, her lithe body curled up into a tight little ball. Rebecca had jet-black hair, cut short against her alabaster skin, and she was even prettier than Sandra. She had just turned 20. But as young as she was, she was the only one of the three of them who didn’t look scared. Her blue eyes were positively glowing with excitement. To her, this was beyond thrilling—really, James Bond kind of s–t. Looking at her, Thad was infused with adrenalin. They were so damn close.

And suddenly he was bathed in green as the light finally changed.

Thad touched the gas pedal, and the Jeep jerked forward—then he quickly lifted his foot—making sure the speedometer read exactly five mph. The slow-motion getaway continued, the only sounds the rumble of the Jeep’s engine and the crackle of the rain against the windshield.

A bare few minutes later, they came to the last traffic light—and again, of course, it was red. Even worse, Thad quickly made out the security kiosk just a few yards to the left of the light. He could see at least two uniformed guards inside. Thad held his breath as he slowed the Jeep to a stop at the light; he kept his head facing forward, willing Sandra to do the same. He didn’t want to have to explain why he was at the compound, past midnight on a Saturday. Thad was counting on the fact that neither of the guards would be eager to step out into the rain to interrogate him. Even so, if one of the guards had looked carefully, he might have noticed that the Jeep was sagging in the back. In fact, the vehicle’s rear axle was bent so low that the chassis almost scraped the ground as they idled at the traffic stop.

The sag of the Jeep was one of the few things that Thad and his two accomplices hadn’t planned. A miscalculation, actually: the safe that Thad and the two girls had hoisted into the back of the Jeep—less than 10 minutes ago—weighed much more than Thad had expected, probably close to 600 lb. It had taken all three of them and a levered dolly to perform the feat, and even so Thad had strained every muscle in his back and legs getting the damn thing situated properly. Thad was just thankful that the Jeep’s axle hadn’t collapsed under the weight. As it was, he was pretty sure that even a cursory inspection of the vehicle would be enough to blow the whole operation.

Thankfully, neither of the guards made any move to step out of the kiosk. When the light shifted to green, Thad had to use all of his self-control to barely touch the gas—piloting them forward at the prescribed five mph. Almost instantly, the exit gate came into view. They approached, inch by inch—and at the last minute, the gate swung upward, out of the way. And then they were through. Thad slowly accelerated. Ten mph.

Twenty mph.

Thirty mph.

He glanced in the rearview mirror. The compound had receded into the rain.

He looked at Sandra—and she stared back at him. Rebecca uncurled herself and sat up in the middle of the Jeep, throwing an arm over his shoulder. Then they were all screaming in joy. They had done it. My God, they had truly pulled it off.

When the celebration had died down, Thad glanced into the rear-view mirror again—but this time, he wasn’t looking at the road behind them. He could see the dark bulk of the safe, covered in a plastic tarp they had bought in a hardware store just 24 hours ago. The sight of the thing caused his chest to tighten—a mix of anticipation and what could only be described as pure awe.

In that safe was the most precious substance on Earth. A national treasure—of unimaginable value, something that had never been stolen before—something that could never, in fact, be replaced. Thad wasn’t sure what the contents of the safe were worth—but he did know that if he’d wanted to, he could have just as easily walked off with enough of the stuff to make him the richest man in the world. As it was, he and his accomplices had pulled off one of the biggest heists in U.S. history.

But to Thad, it hadn’t really been about the monetary value of the contents of the safe. All he’d really wanted to do was keep a promise to the girl sitting next to him, her arm over his shoulder. A simple promise that millions of other men had made to millions of women over the years.

He had promised to give her the moon.

The difference was, Thad Roberts was the first man who was actually going to keep that promise.

From Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich.

Copyright 2011 by Ben Mezrich

Published by arrangement with Doubleday.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.