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The Case of the Stolen Moon Rocks

The Case of the Stolen Moon Rocks
Last of Three NASA Interns Sentenced for Grievous Theft


Back 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.

That’s 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!

But a 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.

Here’s 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.

So 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.

How 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 Apollo mission.

What 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 the safe.

What 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.