This week, as the space shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time back on Earth, NASA can't be thrilled about the timing of the publication of Sex on the Moon.
With Atlantis retired, NASA, once the technological zenith, the great hope for the future, now laments a stalled space program with no vision.
Lifting off on July 8, the commander of the ship, Captain Christopher Ferguson, tried to be upbeat about the end of an era. "The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We're not ending the journey today … we're completing a chapter in a journey that will never end."
Sex on the Moon is also a story of daring to be bold and committing, if inexplicably and against all rationality, to following through. It is a caper tale that exposes how one of NASA's brightest young stars, a clever runaway Mormon named Thad Roberts, 25, stole some moon rocks to impress his girlfriend, trashing his future at NASA in the process.
It's the latest book by Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House, which morphed into the movie 21, and The Accidental Billionaires, which became The Social Network. Sex on the Moon too is in the pulp-non-fiction genre, crafted with colour-saturated prose and hyperbolic plot points that have its screenplay in view (movie rights long since optioned by Aaron Sorkin, Kevin Spacey et al.).
Roberts (cue Ryan Reynolds), whizzing through a triple major at University of Utah, arrives at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a coveted spot in a co-op program. Gathering on the first day with this farm team for astronauts, he marvels for a moment at a 16-by-70-foot mural by space artist Robert McCall, titled Opening the Next Frontier - The Next Giant Step.
"It was supposed to tell the entire story of the JSC. … The painting seemed a bit tacky, if not outright kitsch, but it did a pretty good job of graphically recognizing the space agency's accomplishments. From the first manned spaceflight of Alan Shepard in 1961, through the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and shuttle programs - Thad didn't think anyone who cared about space could stand in front of that mural and not get goose bumps. … The thing that Thad liked most about the mural was where it ended; there was plenty of space along that vast wall for whatever came next." Roberts, of course, wanted to be what came next. He had visions dancing in his head of being the first astronaut on Mars.
What's so impressive about this caper is that Roberts figured out how to crack what one might expect would be the best space-age security system that NASA's average annual budget of $15-billion (U.S.) could buy. Even the astronauts' shower room at JSC was a high-tech wonder, "a scene right out of The Jetsons … when Thad stepped out of the shower - that's when the mystery set in. Like clockwork, a steaming hot towel would appear out of the wall in front of him. Both Thad and his friend had spent hours searching for the sensors that told the computer it was time for the towel - to no avail."
And yet Roberts masterminded a heist that, with mostly the fawning moral support of two younger female accomplices, both fellow interns, one his girlfriend of mere weeks, earned him 101.5 grams of moon rocks. This is roughly the weight of one medium-sized banana, but at that he'd nabbed samples from "every single moon landing in human history" (though a sliver of the total 382-kilogram haul), and a Mars meteor as a bonus. Even though these were rocks NASA considered "trash," because they had already been used in various experiments, they were still national treasures, illegal to own and illegal to sell.
What's so unsatisfying about this tale is that although Roberts was smart enough to see the weak links in the security system and to engineer the heist, he was stupid enough as to actually try it. And despite Mezrich's ravenous research into thousands of pages of court records and such, there isn't much exploration or explanation of the why. Other than sex. Having sawed open the safe in less than an hour (owing to its weakling aluminum pins), Roberts stuffed the moon rocks under a mattress in a motel and did the deed on top with his girlfriend right before they tried to sell the loot for a measly $100,000 (a hapless stoner of a third accomplice had set up the buyer over the Internet), got caught in an FBI sting operation and landed in jail. There, at least, Roberts had time, eight years, for some soul-searching.
As the director of the Kennedy Space Center noted of the new NASA era ahead, "You can't do something else, you can't do something better, unless you go through change."
So far (although this is not covered in the book), Roberts has developed a fractal theory for the fabric of the universe and compiled a 94-point list of things he wants to do with his life, which includes writing an autobiography (perhaps with some emotional pull), earning his astronaut wings and getting involved in a private space agency.
On second thought, maybe stealing those moon rocks wasn't such a stupid thing to do after all.
Siobhan Roberts is the author of King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry.