In 2002, rogue NASA interns stole millions of dollars in moon rocks. This is the untold story of how they did it.
Building 31 North's white halls are empty, because it is the middle of the night. NASA interns Thad Roberts and Tiffany duck inside a bathroom, and tear off their clothing. Then they change into the contents of their duffel bags—2mm thick neoprene bodysuits. Like in a bad movie, the suits will help Thad and Tiffany avoid heat sensors armed to feel out threatening climate changes inside a vault. The adrenaline, their attraction, the smell of rubber suits and the fear of failure is almost overwhelming. After pulling on the thermally shielded gear, Tiffany and Thad step back into the corridor, moving toward the turnstile lock that guards their target: NASA's prized stash of moon rocks.
Building 31 North, which sits on the grounds of Houston's Johnson Space Centre, is where NASA keeps all 600 pounds of the moon rocks it has secured. They are the sole property of the government, collected over six lunar missions and protected with the dramatic intensity of national treasures. Building 31 North is one of the few buildings on earth constructed under Class 100 standards—it is a structure that can withstand 1000 years of water submersion, among other durability metrics that should not be tested this side of Armageddon.
Breaking into it is designed to be impossible for normal people. But not harder than building a shuttle, or figuring out how to put a rover on Mars. The agency hires people with the ability to find solutions for intimidatingly large problems exactly like this one. In this regard, Roberts was your typical NASA intern. The 25-year-old was pursuing multiple degrees in Physics, Geology and Anthropology. But while Thad was school smart, he also has an almost unquencheable adrenaline-seeking side, and was consumed with a strange Excel spreadsheet of personal goals that read like he was trying to prove himself to Evel Knievel and a rocket scientist at the same time: Experience zero gravity, check; experience severe dehydration, check; find dinosaur tracks, no problem. The list was long, and as he checked off one after another, maybe Thad's ego began to believe anything was possible.
But Thad wasn't in this alone. He was on his way to a divorce fuelled by an affair he was having with fellow intern Tiffany Fowler. Tiffany was equally dynamic—a firecracker and former cheerleader who spoke French in bed and conducted stem cell research on NASA's behalf. Thad wanted her, so when Tiffany begged to hear his idea to liberate the moon rocks, he told her. And when she wanted to follow through with the plan, the romantic and exciting thing was to start hatching a plan as if it were yet another science problem at work. One that would could make them very rich, or ruin their lives.
Soon one more curious co-op, the 19-year-old Shae Saur, had joined in on the heist. After months of preparation, they found themselves embarking on their unauthorised mission, driving for Building 31 North after dark with intel on every security device—and plans to get around them.
When it comes to Thad's story, it is worth noting several things. I was not allowed to quote him directly from my interviews, and the others involved in the crime declined to verify his facts. This is his story as he told it to me. And in the time since, he's written a novel about the heist, which was "based on truth, but it's embellished." So, take the tale for what it's worth.
The Space Centre had been under 24-hour supervision since the 9/11 attacks, but the guards planted at each entryway are not in the habit of stopping NASA's carefully selected interns—who are always working—from entering after hours.
The guard said, "You get a new car?"
Thad replied, "No, sir. Borrowed it to help a friend move."
So with a wave of a hand, Shae, Tiffany and Thad were granted access. Thad guided the Jeep Cherokee on the short journey past Rocket Park—an open sky cemetery of former rockets and spacecraft—then parked near the entryway of Building 31.
Once they were in range, the three set about linking and looping the cameras inside Building 31, a system that they had previously taped between shifts of employees responsible for watching the cameras. It is unknown how Thad and company received the intel required to do such a thing, even if the idea itself is straight out of a heist flick. But Shae stayed in the car to monitor the rewired cameras, to warn Tiffany and Thad if anything went wrong. While they prepped, they watched for the presence of fellow late night co-workers, but Thad timed their arrival well and they are alone. So far so good. Thad and Tiffany crawled out of the Jeep, grabbed their duffel bags, and headed for the entryway. Getting inside the front door was easy—a former coworker had simply emailed Thad the code that would allow them access. Inside jobs are often like this, but NASA doesn't make it easy to steal moon rocks—the puzzle was only starting to get complicated.
Inside the building, an unassuming university-like structure formed by blocks and filled with sterile white walls, Thad and Tiffany walked down well-lit hallways. The milky corridors, warmed by picture shrines to missions past, form the passageway between the offices of full time NASA employees, as well as the route to the inner sanctum of Building 31 North. They stopped to prepare.
In the bathroom, when Thad and Tiffany put on their wetsuits, they also stopped to check their breathing apparatus. The moon rocks were in a chamber devoid of oxygen in order to keep the rocks from rotting by oxidation. They would have 15 minutes of air supplied from their tanks once they entered the nitrogen-filled chamber, past the airlock.
If the interior of Building 31 can be described as white, then the interior of Building 31 North can be described as bleached—immaculate and bloodless in a wash of round-the-clock sterility. During the day, the single lab inside the pearly building buzzes with the movement of white jackets occupied by some of the biggest brains in the world. But at night, once the scientists have passed through the clean room that guards their entries and exits, the lab is nothing but white surfaces, cold metal, glass panels and the unearthly presence of nitrogen tanks. Thad and Tiffany's path took them straight through clean room and across the empty laboratory, leaving them at the edge of a short hall that dead-ended at the door to the vault.
Breaking into the actual vault required a complex series of codes, some of which were cracked using a dusting of calcite, fluorite and gypsum powder. The mix of the three glows under blacklight, and by paying careful attention to the absorption of the powder it is possible to tell which finger came down first and so forth. It doesn't quite make sense that Thad could use this trick to figure out the exact sequence for all the codes, based off such rudimentary information. But once Thad had eventually thrown his whole weight against the vault door, the two were inside.
The vault itself was much like the laboratory, a big room in which core samples and moon rocks are encased in glass and metal, numbered by mission. But they hadn't the time to admire their surroundings. To stay on track—or more importantly, to stay alive—Thad and Tiffany had only 3 minutes to crack the safe, or they wouldn't have enough air to get back outside.
As the seconds crept onward, Thad continued to struggle with the code, so he quickly moved to plan B, which involved unbolting the heavy safe from the ground, loading it on to a small dolly and carting it back out to the car. It wasn't easy, but within the remaining time allotted to them, the two managed to slip out of the vault, through the laboratory, down the hallways, past the rooms, through the doors and out of the grounds undetected—all while dragging over a quarter ton of rocks and metal. No small feat, and I'm unsure of how, even on a dolly, a man and a woman could have moved it all.
NASA didn't realise the safe was gone for two days. A list of suspects was slowly put together. There were no clues left behind—not a fingerprint, a piece of hair, nothing—so the resulting set of names (which was void of that of the actual culprits) looked more like a compiled NASA shitlist than anything else.
The samples they took were from every Apollo mission, ever. Sometime between the heist and its resolution, Tiffany and Thad arranged the moon rocks on a bed—and had sex amongst them.
Typically, the life of NASA terrestrial moon rocks is dull. After reams of paperwork get approved, a small fragment of the rock makes its way out of this building and into the hands of a researcher, who for a period of time can coax the moon to give up its secrets. However, when the researcher's time is up, the rock must be returned to the safekeeping of its disaster-proof home, but now permanently compromised by the prods and chemical dousings that so rarely result in something worth talking about.
By this point, the rock is considered too tainted for further use, but is subjected nonetheless to the same eager security as the rest of the contents of 31 North. The rocks, never to be touched again, go in the safe that Thad stole, which is kept inside the same vault where the untested moon rocks rest behind glass panels in a heavily monitored, oxygen-free climate to simulate the moon.
It is worth noting that at any point in the vault, Thad or Tiffany could have used glasscutters to get to the untouched moon rocks behind a panel, but stole the much more difficult to carry safe instead. Why?
There is significant frustration among NASA employees regarding the tested rocks. Tainted as they may be, many feel they deserve to be at least on display. Perhaps most irritatingly, they present an obvious answer to NASA's funding issues. Science's trash can be a collector's treasure, and the price on a piece of the moon, chemical-laden or otherwise, mirrors that of any other intergalactic relic. For these reasons, conversations about these stored rocks are as common on the grounds of the Johnson Space Centre as the solving of more everyday astronautical problems. And NASA employees like to solve problems. To Thad Roberts, the problem of the underutilized-but-valuable moon rocks had a simple answer. He told me that if they were useless to science, he saw no harm in stealing them. And the fact he stole the safe, not the more easily taken fresh rocks, seems to back this up.
On the other hand, the FBI's case files contradicts this notion:
...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 the safe.
Who do you trust less, a convicted thief, or the US government?
The story, however, does not end here.
Gordon McWhorter, a friend of Thad's who was largely unaware of the magnitude of the heist, had helped to find a buyer for the rocks, across the internet.
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.
A Belgian amateur mineralogist by the name of Axel Emmermann had been coveting moon rocks as an addition to his unusual collection. Emmermann wanted the rocks if the price was right, and Thad had priced a quarter pound of moon far, far under NASA's post-crime estimate of over $30 million. The price was so right, in fact, that Emmermann grew suspicious, and worried that the deal might be less black and white than it seemed.
On July 20, 2002—exactly 33 years to the day after the day that Armstrong first stepped on the moon—"Emmermann" met Thad in a Florida restaurant. They chatted, then headed for a hotel where the official swap was to take place. They all stepped out of the car. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Roberts joked, "I'm just hoping you don't have a wire on you." He was. The person Thad thought was Emmermann was actually an FBI agent.
In moments, 40 agents, 40 guns and the sound of a helicopter overhead surrounded them. The freeway had even been shut down in case of escape. They'd been made.
Tiffany and Thad were in a holding cell together for 24 hours, but that was the last time they'd be together until the sentencing date.
In court, Thad looked back at her from his seat in the courtroom; Tiffany looked down at her feet.
The punishments were doled out in unfair, interesting packages. Both of the girls were simply handed probation, but the boys were both dealt several years. Gordon was served nearly as harshly as Thad, who received 100 months for his planning, execution of the crime (a sentence that was later reduced). As if all of this wasn't enough, Thad was also brought up on charges of stealing dinosaur fossils from a dig site in Utah. The case was folded into this one.
Thad spent his time in prison doing things befitting of an ex-NASA co-op, like teaching his inmates about quantum physics, but also spent a good deal of time mourning the loss of Tiffany. On August 4th, 2008, when his sentence was finished, he was dismayed to learn she had moved on. By that point, however, he had another thing in his possession, a completed book entitled Einstein's Intuition: Visualizing an Eleven-Dimensional Framework of Nature, An Introduction to Quantum Space Theory. That says that the book covers Einstein's theories of truth, the rational complete form of nature, and the interplay of the seen and the unseen. It has yet to be published.
There are rumours of unsolved mysteries. Supposedly, two significant pieces of NASA history went missing during the time of the crime, and have not been recovered: The original video tapes of the 1969 Lunar Landing, and six folders of more mysterious content that were supposedly stored in the safe. Thad claims to have never seen them.
Carmel Hagen serves as editor at realtime search engine OneRiot, where she guzzles Bawls energy drink and chucks empty bottles at PCs. In her spare time she sleeps, explores San Francisco, and writes for a solid mix of urban culture, trendsetting and tech publications.