in 1969 and the early 1970s, the world watched with wonder
as Apollo astronauts collected rock samples from the lunar
surface. These precious items, along with a piece of meteorite
that could hold signs of life on Mars, were sealed to prevent
contamination with the earth’s atmosphere and were ultimately
stored in a safe at a Johnson Space Center lab in Houston.
precisely where three NASA interns found them in the spring
of 2002. And took them. And eventually put them up for sale
on the web site of the Mineralogy Club of Antwerp, Belgium.
Genuine moon rocks – going for anywhere from $1,000
to $5,000 a gram!
Belgian rock collector who got wind of the sale was suspicious,
and he decided to contact the FBI. With the collector’s
help, Special Agents in Tampa set up a ruse to catch the thieves.
how it worked: FBI Agents had the collector e-mail
“Orb Robinson” (one of the interns who was offering
the rocks for sale) and say he was interested in buying the
lunar treasures. The collector said: “Contact my brother
and sister-in-law in Pennsylvania to set up a meeting.”
The Belgian collector’s American relatives were really
undercover FBI Agents. “Orb” and the rock collector’s
“relatives” agreed to meet at an Italian restaurant
in Orlando, Florida, on July 20, 2002 – ironically,
on the 33rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. There,
“Orb” and two partners were arrested and the moon
rocks successfully recovered in their nearby hotel room.
who were these brazen young criminals? “Orb
Robinson” was really Thad Roberts, former NASA college
intern and ringleader of the plan. His partners in crime were
former interns Tiffany Fowler and Shae Saur. A fourth associate
from Utah who had set up the web site and sent e-mails was
also arrested and charged in the conspiracy.
did they pull off the heist? Using their NASA IDs,
they slipped into the Johnson Space Center at night and made
off with a 600-pound safe containing moon rocks from every
damage did they do? The young thieves did more than
just try to sell off a collection of lunar samples worth as
much as $21 million. In the process, they also contaminated
them – making them virtually useless to the scientific
community. They also destroyed three decades worth of handwritten
research notes by a NASA scientist that had been locked in
happened to them? All three interns pled guilty.
On October 29, Roberts was sentenced to more than eight years
in prison for his role in the moon rock caper, as well as
for stealing dinosaur bones from a Utah museum (the fossils
turned up during a search of Roberts’ house). The fourth
accomplice was convicted at trial.