Turns out it is actually possible for someone to ‘physically’ love you to the moon and back, because back in 2002—we’d like to draw your attention to a story that needs more airtime, because it’s ridiculous. A 25 year old intern at NASA, Thad Roberts, stole more than $20 million worth of moon rocks and Martian meteorites, all so that he could have sex with his girlfriend on the moon. There’s a lot more to it though, here’s everything you need to know.
The moon rock heist was actually attempted by a group of four rogue NASA interns, not just Roberts, although he acted as ringleader. Also involved in the audacious crime were Gordon McWhorter, Tiffany Fowler and Shae Saur. Roberts had been accepted onto NASA’s internship program at 23 years old. He was a triple major in physics, geology and geophysics as well as the founder of the Utah Astronomical Society, with a strong determination to be the first person on Mars. Effectively, he was a rising star with a bright career ahead of him, but let’s just say his trajectory changed drastically, because an inner rebellion took over his sparkly spaced future.
In the summer of 2002, the group of interns managed to steal more than $20 million worth of moon rocks and Martian meteorites right from under the space giant NASA’s nose, but was caught by the FBI in Florida which led him to spending six years in prison. As for the rest of the group, “Being an astronaut is something I had planned to do and aspired to do my entire life,” Saur told the Houston Chronicle before she was sentenced. “My own actions have shattered that dream.” The two Texan women, Fowler and Saur, were given three years probation, as well as required to pay $9,000 back to NASA.
Roberts, Fowler and Saur reportedly broke into the NASA lab and used a dolly to wheel the 600 pound safe to a loading dock and into a Jeep Cherokee. “The 600-pound safe was broken into at a Clear Lake motel and later discarded.” Was it really all to have a saucy romp among the moon rocks though?
Well, as wonderful as that narrative sounds, it isn’t exactly 100 per cent true. The sex on moon rock action happened by chance, but his true intention was to make money out of selling the rocks. The moon rock samples and the meteorite were hidden in Fowler’s apartment while the group continued to work at NASA as if nothing had happened, then a week later—Roberts and Fowler, who were at the time sleeping together (a norty little affair) drove to a hotel in Orlando, Florida, to complete the sale. The facts are understandably a little murky, but according to The Atlantic, Roberts placed a few vials of moon rocks under Fowler’s hotel pillow, and they had sex without her knowing that they were actually there. The confusion perhaps comes down to the fact that he had previously embellished and joked about the detail in previous interview, telling CBS News that “having sex on top of moon rocks was uncomfortable.”
Investigations were immediately underway once the rocks were stated as missing, but the undercover wheeling-and-dealing that Roberts had planned was also in full swing. Roberts had started to sell off these priceless rocks, which he described on the website of the Mineralogy club of Antwerp, Belgium as “the world’s largest private and verifiable Apollo rock collection.” Red flags? Apparently not, because Roberts persisted. The sale prices ranged from $1,000 to $5,000 per gram.
Later, discovered emails between Roberts and buyers contained him saying “As you well know, it is illegal to sell Apollo lunar rocks in the United States, This obviously has not discouraged me since I live in the United States. However, I must be cautious that this deal is handled with delicacy in that I am not publicly exposed.” As stated by CBS News, “We found that the emails were coming, initially, from the University of Utah,” said Nick Nance, one of the FBI’s investigators on the case, and continued that “they started coming from Johnson Space Center, which lent credibility to the fact that these could be actual lunar samples that are going to be presented for sale.”
So, on July 20, 2002, which (probably intentionally) happened to be the 33rd anniversary of the first moon walk, Roberts and Fowler arrived in Orlando, where they expected to sell their stash of stars. The buyers in Orlando were FBI agents, and the heist was… well, kaput!
Having done his time in jail, which granted him a vast amount of time to think, Roberts continued to pave his way through space. He was invited to do a TEDx talk based on a book that he wrote in prison based on Einstein’s Intuition: Visualizing Nature in Eleven Dimensions. A biography was also published, written by Ben Mezrich, titled: Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History. Then a documentary by Icon Films aired on the National Geographic channel in 2012. The rest of the group have faded from public view.
So why would someone so assumingly clever do such a stupid thing? Well, “He really wasn’t a criminal,” said Mezrich. “He didn’t think through the after-effects. I asked him dozens of times over the year, ‘How did you think you were going to get away with this?’ And he said it just wasn’t part of the thought process… He only thought of it as a college prank; he thought, ‘Even if I do get caught, what’s the worst they’ll do to me?”
Roberts, in a brief explanation of character, seems to be the epitome of ‘a rebel with a cause’, his unfurling journey wasn’t shattered or stained by his past either. His imagination may have fuzzed over his reason in the past, but apparently his imagination hasn’t faltered—it has possibly heightened, he concluded on his dreams for the future to The Atlantic and stated that, “I think I’m gonna still make a run for space. The private industry is still maybe going on. This might be the big thing of our lifetime and if it is, I’m gonna try to find a way to go.” and added that, “Maybe I can go pick up a moon rock, legally this time! One that I can keep. Put on my mantle and not have to keep it a secret.” Good idea, Roberts.
In 2019, a study suggested that all-woman astronaut crews on long-term missions could populate new planets if sent with sperm banks in tow. The study shuttled up samples from 10 healthy donors and found no significant differences between the swimmers who had been given the ride versus those that had stayed on the ground. However, the researchers stated the need for further work to analyse the implications of long-term space exposure on the samples. Two years later, a bunch of scientists from the University of Arizona finally have an answer.
At the annual Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Aerospace Conference, the team presented a report titled Lunar Pits and Lava Tubes for a Modern Ark. The report proposed the establishment of a repository for reproductive cells and DNA samples from 6.7 million of Earth’s species, including humans.
Dubbed a “global insurance policy,” plans for the celestial ‘cum-locker’ involve storing these samples inside lunar lava tubes and caves. Discovered in 2013, the Moon is pockmarked with hundreds of these pits. Around 80 to 100 meters deep, they provide ready-made shelter from the surface of the Moon that undergoes major temperature swings. They also act as shelters from micro-meteorites and solar as well as cosmic radiations.
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The report also sketches out the concept of ‘SphereX’ robots which can be deployed to explore and identify pristine lunar pits that can be used to build the ark. Spotting danger signs like rough rocks and other debris, these modular robots are designed to survey potential pits by hopping and sending back accurate images.
The motivation to build a “modern ark,” according to the lead author Jekan Thanga, are factors like mass extinction and rapid loss of diversity in our ecosystem. “Earth is in an extremely fragile state due to human activity and other inexplicable phenomenons,” said the author, anticipating major threats like super-volcanic eruptions, nuclear wars, asteroids hitting Earth, global epidemics and climate change in the coming decades. Thanga also stated the alarming drop in honey bee population as one of the major factors pushing the world’s food supply to the verge of complete collapse.
“There is a need for a lunar ark,” the author continued. Given all these major cataclysms, he stated that the ark would be “more cost-effective than trying to protect all of the endangered species or building an entire artificial ecosystem to sustain them.”
But why a ‘lunar’ ark specifically? Why is the Moon cited as the ultimate destination for these vaults? In his presentation, Thanga outlined the fact that the moon is only 4 days away from Earth. Lacking enough water resources, the natural satellite is deemed unfit for living which further accelerates its potential for being subjected to better applications—species conservation and storage, for example. The 6.7 million species that are proposed to be housed in these vaults can be broken down into 5.1 million fungi, 0.3 million plants and 1.3 million animals. These reproductive cells and DNA samples would be stored at cryo-conditions hence “expected to survive hundreds of years.”
Doomsday arks are not a new concept. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was set up in 2008 as an attempt to preserve a wide variety of plants during global catastrophes. Thanga admits that the seed bank is “definitely a step in the right direction” but is not a concrete solution given the fact that it’s constructed in the Arctic Circle—now susceptible to rising sea levels triggered by climate change.
“Humanity has a fundamental responsibility to protect the diversity on Earth,” concluded Thanga. With NASA’s third and fourth National Climate Assessment reports predicting up to 8 feet rise in global sea levels with intense hurricanes, droughts and heatwaves, the proposal of building an ark itself seeks to initiate a much-need call to action.
Lunar sperm banks may just be the ultimate backup and ‘dream cum true’ in hopes of repopulating our species following major catastrophes which we have summoned upon ourselves. And with World Backup Day round the corner, it may just be the right time to pledge that we back up our species along with all of the data on our computers.