Friday, August 26, 2016

Review of "Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story of the Most Audacious Heist in History"

This is a (sort of) true story about the July, 2002 moon rock heist pulled off by NASA intern Thad Roberts...and presumably what put Thad on this foolish course.

Thad grew up in a strict Mormon community in Utah. Even so, temptation got the better of him and Thad had sex with his high school girlfriend Sonya. Confessing to this when he was at the Mormon Missionary Training Center got Thad thrown out of the church and banned from his family - apparently forever. Was this the traumatic event that shaped Thad's future? Who knows. In any case Thad and Sonya married and Thad became a student at the University of Utah.

Thad, an excellent student with a wide variety of interests, decided he wanted to be an astronaut. Thus Thad made it his business to develop a wide-ranging skill set including scuba diving; getting a pilot's licence; mastering several languages (space travel is international); studying geology, astronomy, and physics; and so on. With persistence Thad made it into the highly competitive NASA intern program in Houston, Texas where he met some of the country's top scientists plus a few astronauts.

Ben Mezrich's writing style is 'creative non-fiction' and it's hard to know how much of the story happened as described. Thus when Thad, a self-described shy youth, is depicted as the 'star' of the intern program - partaking in risky pranks; organizing activities like skinny dipping, cliff jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, and wild parties; hob-nobbing with numerous scientists; and so on - I don't quite believe it all.

Thad, who fully cooperated with this book, also seems a bit self-serving when he (more or less) justifies having an affair with fellow intern Rebecca by putting the onus on his wife. According to Thad, Sonya - who remained back in Utah - became over-involved with her modeling career and model friends and distanced herself from him. So Thad felt no guilt about cheating. I'm calling shenanigans on Thad!

In any case Thad fell madly in love with Rebecca, and four weeks after meeting her pulled off the moon rock heist. He wanted to 'give Rebecca the moon' - and of course sell the specimens for a lot of money. The idea of stealing the moon rocks had been brewing in Thad's mind for quite some time. The background: moon rocks that have been studied/used for experiments are no longer considered valuable scientific specimens. In Thad's mind, therefore, it was hardly a crime to steal these 'trash rocks.' I got the impression Thad equated his heist with taking garbage out of a dumpster.

Moreover, Thad wasn't new to the thief game. He regularly stole fossils being prepared for storage from the University of Utah. In Thad's opinion, it was a waste to hide these items away. As a scientist I was appalled by this! Apparently Thad never heard of specimens (be it moon rocks or fossils or whatever) being stored for rotating/traveling displays, gifts to museums, public interest, later studies (perhaps with new technques), etc. Ben Mezrich also seems oblivious to this concept, perhaps because he isn't a scientist.

For the moon rock theft Thad had two accomplices besides Rebecca - his friends Gordon and Sandra. These two come across as underdeveloped characters with unclear motivations. My favorite person in the book is Axel Emmerman, the Belgian rock hound who's ostensibly going to buy the purloined moon rocks. Instead, Axel alerts the FBI. Axel's enthusium and excitement at being involved in this 'undercover' operation is fun and infectious.

In the end, of course, Thad was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. My overall impression of Thad is that he was an immature and thoughtless young man who cared little for anyone other than himself. Perhaps the worst outcome of the heist, which involved the theft of a safe containing moon rocks and written materials, was the permanent loss of scientist Everett Gibson's notebooks - which contained 30 years worth of research. This debacle literally made me cry.

For me Mezrich's writing style is off-putting, with over-abundant dialog, numerous descriptions of the inner thoughts of the characters, a detailed step-by-step depiction of the theft and attempted sale of the moon specimens, a long description of a drunk/high Gordon stumbling around on 'sale day'...all stuff that seems (at least partly) made up. Mezrich also mentions Thad's 'bright green eyes' and Rebecca's 'gorgeous face and body' a few too many times. In the end, I felt what should have been a really good magazine article was padded to make a book.

Still - though the moon rock heist is far from the 'crime of the century' suggested by the author - it's an interesting story, worth reading.

Rating: 3 stars

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