Elements of our lives undoubtedly impact not only what we read but how we read it. Growing up during the Gemini and Apollo programs left me with a continued interest in space-related topics. Later training in a “just the facts ma’am” approach to journalism tends to leave me feeling terms like “creative nonfiction” have more than a hint of oxymoron. What happens when the two collide, as they do in Ben Mezrich’s Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History?
The book is a highly readable account of a seemingly impossible and wholly unparalleled crime, the theft of moon rocks from NASA. Mezrich shows us how Thad Roberts overcame the odds to have a promising science career and the chance of accomplishing his dream of being an astronaut and how he threw it all away in an unimaginable and foolhardy fashion. As with his prior books, though, Mezrich makes the story captivating by utilizing a novel-like approach to telling the story.
Despite being disowned by his strict Mormon family as a teen, 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. It was there, though, that a character flaw that would doom him revealed itself. When Roberts realized some fossils in the museum’s collection would forever sit unnoticed in closed containers, he decided to bring some 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, Roberts remade himself and became a leader among the other “co-ops,” viewed as an adventurer and risk-taker. While fascinated by what the co-op program allowed him to do, Roberts was particularly intrigued when one of his mentors told them that 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 the moon rocks, among NASA’s most highly protected materials. The idea became an obsession. At first, it was to come up with money to fund his education and perhaps even his own laboratory. (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 in the co-op 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. What Roberts didn’t know and his amateurish approach toward selling the moon material made easier, the collector was working with the FBI on a sting operation. Mezrich unfolds the tale, from conception through arrest, 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.
A reader, though, likely will encounter two problems with the book. First, apparently because Roberts was his primary source, Mezrich admits the story is told largely from his perspective. We are never quite sure of the extent to which Roberts’ version of events fit with objective reality. For example, were Rebecca and Sandra the willing adventurers Mezrich portrays or was Roberts able to exert some sort of Svengali-like influence on them? The second issue is more important and one that arose with each of Mezrich’s prior nonfiction works. The book’s readability comes from 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. Mezrich even says on his web site that he has “created his own highly addictive genre of nonfiction.” But readers may well pause and wonder how far this goes.
Here, even Rebecca and Sandra aren’t the real names of the women involved and, as far as I can determine, Mezrich 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 feel novelistic, at what point do such changes push a work from nonfiction to a novelization or “based on a true story” status? (The latter may become even more fitting in the future as Sony Pictures optioned the film rights to the book this past January.)
Undoubtedly, Sex on the Moon is an entertaining and enjoyable read. From the perspective of a space-age reader, I found it quite intriguing. Ultimately, though, the question confronting each reader is the extent to which the entertainment value undercuts trust in the author and, hence, the story.
To the co-ops, NASA was a religion. And a real live astronaut was nothing short of a deity.
Ben Mezrich, Sex on the Moon