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Sheer Lunacy

Four College Students Hatched a Scheme to Steal Moon Rocks From the Johnson Space Center. It Was a Crazy Idea--and It Worked.

June 06, 2004|Michael Goldstein | Michael Goldstein is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.


My name is Orb Robinson from Tampa, Fla. I have in my possession a rare and multi-karat moon rock I'm trying to find a buyer for. The laws surrounding this type of exchange are known, so I will be straightforward and nonchalant about wanting to find a private buyer. If you, or someone you know would be interested in such an exchange, please let me know.

Thank you.


On a balmy night in July 2002, a Jeep Cherokee drove up to an entrance at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The guard took a casual look at the car as he questioned the driver.

"You get a new car?"

"No, sir, borrowed it to help a friend move."

With a nod and a smile, the guard waved through the young man and his two female companions. Although access to NASA was restricted after 9/11, that didn't apply to the industrious college students working at the center. NASA picks only the best and the brightest, with an eye on promoting top candidates to full-time employment or even the astronaut training program.

Thad Roberts, then 25, was in the Cooperative Education Program, working in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory as a support diver--helping space-suited astronauts practice their tasks in a 40-foot-deep pool. Tiffany Fowler, 22 and romantically involved with Roberts, was an intern in NASA's tissue culture laboratory. Shae Saur, 19, was another high-achieving intern, part of a student team that created a zero-gravity pollination experiment for NASA.

They drove through Rocket Park, past the rusting, 363-foot-long Saturn V moon rocket displayed on its side like a fallen colossus. Their Jeep rolled up to one of the nondescript buildings on the campus and parked near the entrance. They watched for passing cars or prying eyes, but Roberts was confident that they were in the clear; he'd done surveillance to time the guards' shift change. Roberts and Fowler used their security card keys to open the door. They strode down the familiar hall while Saur remained on the lookout in the Jeep.

One of Roberts' mentors at NASA was the prominent astrobiologist Everett Gibson. Now the young man was trying to break into the scientist's laboratory, but a Cypher Lock, which requires a code to open, blocked the entry.

It was no match for these gifted science students. They eventually guessed the right code and opened the lock. They doubled back to the Jeep, threw up the lift gate and pulled down the dolly they had just bought at Wal-Mart.

For a safe that looked like a file cabinet, it was unexpectedly heavy. Roberts bruised his arm trying to wrestle the 600-pound box onto the dolly. They rolled it out to the Jeep, locking the door behind them.

The Jeep was sagging, but they drove it out of NASA without being searched. They checked into a nearby motel, where they found they couldn't open the safe without the right codes. But the young problem-solvers had brought a power saw. It took hours to cut the safe open, yet no one knocked on their door to complain about the racket.

Whether it was for love or money, or just the thrill of it all, Roberts' audacious scheme was sheer lunacy--and it worked. The safe yielded a uniquely American treasure: 101 grams of lunar samples collected on the six Apollo moon landings, with the curatorial forms that confirmed their authenticity. The safe also contained a Martian meteorite that hinted at life on the red planet. They had hit the jackpot.

But with moon rocks on their minds, and dollar signs in their eyes, they didn't see the obvious craters on the landscape.


Priceless Moon Rocks Now Available!!!

"Orb Robinson"

If you have an interest in purchasing a rare and historically significant piece of the moon, and would like more information, then please contact me by e-mail and leave your contact information and an explanation of your interest.




The stars had always beckoned to Thad Ryan Roberts. But when he arrived at the University of Utah in the fall of 1995, he says, the observation dome at the top of the South Physics building hadn't been used in seven years.

"Because I was excited, the supervisor showed me an old telescope," Roberts says. "I tore apart the motor drive and cleaned it up. We could look at the moon. I fell in love with it."

Roberts, just under 6 feet, appears taller because of his alert outdoorsman's posture. The charisma that comes with confidence verging on cockiness makes it evident why he got the attention of his professors.

"I always thought him to be extremely hard-working," says Lynn Higgs, the undergraduate advisor in the physics department. Higgs was so impressed that he sponsored Roberts to run the observatory and later told him about the NASA co-op program. "His goal was to be the first astronaut on Mars," Higgs says. "He had the most potential."

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