We often ooh and ahh over novels that ring so true we can't believe they're fiction. The characters are so perfect, the (often) period is rendered just so, and we get caught up in everything that happens. That's as close to non-fiction as a lot of readers get. But, for all our admiration of these hyper-realistic novels, we rarely talk about the non-fiction that reads like fiction – stories so crazy with such a strange cast of characters that we think it must be made up. Of course, it isn't (usually, anyway), and that just seems to heighten how surreal the story it. Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich's latest non-fiction thriller, is just like that.
On the surface, Sex on the Moon is the story of a heist, specifically, the theft of a 600-pound safe filled with moon rocks from NASA. But, because that crime is so huge and so ridiculous, as much as this is a book that came about because of the crime, it is really the story of the man who committed it. Thad Roberts was a co-op student at NASA on his third of three tours when he carried out the audacious plan he'd been formulating in his head for months. He was on his way to becoming an astronaut – his dream – and he decided to steal from NASA. For a smart guy, Thad spends a lot of the book being incredibly stupid.
But we should back-up, as Mezrich does, and look at who Thad is. To be honest, I spent the majority of the book really frustrated by him. Thad is a strong central character, and it's clear that Mezrich had lots of access to him while he was putting the book together, but he's a hard guy to like. Early in the book we learn that Thad has been disowned by his Mormon parents for having premarital sex with his girlfriend, who he later marries. They're a very young couple and without financial support from home, Thad ends up dropping out of college for a while to help make ends meet. It's unfulfilling, though, and when he decides to go back to school and is casting around for a goal, he settles on astronaut.
He's ambitious, works hard toward a triple major, and still works part time. Plus, he gets involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities. His wife typically joins him and things are good. Then, he gets accepted into the NASA co-op program, which entails three four-month stints in Houston at the Johnston Space Centre. It means Thad and his wife will be long-distance (they're based in Salt Lake City), but it's worth it.
That gets to Houston and decides he's not going to be shy any more. He's one of the oldest co-ops, and (as Mezrich repeatedly tells us) probably the only guy there who doesn't come from money. So he becomes fun Thad and challenges other co-ops to do something crazy each week. For his first feat, Thad manages to sneak into the shuttle simulator during a shift change. It's unheard of, and it pretty much seals his popularity, which he earns further by organizing weekend adventure trips. Things are going well until his second co-op term when he has the opportunity to help inventory the lunar vault, where the moon rocks are kept. He gets upset when he discovers a safe of "used" moon rocks that NASA considers "trash." The idea bugs him, and it gets him to thinking.
Moon rocks are really valuable; it's also illegal for anyone in the U.S. to own any. Back home in Utah, Thad hooks up with Gordon, a small-time campus drug dealer and pothead, to see if he knows anything about the Internet (this all happens in the early 2000s, so I guess it was an acceptable question). Gordon does, and he sets Thad up with a fake e-mail account under the name "Orb Robinson." Then Thad starts casting about for a buyer, which is how he "meets" Axel Emmerman, a Belgian. Meanwhile, though, Emmerman is suspicious and contacts the FBI, who starts setting a trap for Thad.
Thad goes back to NASA and starts his third term. He doesn't have a "catalyst" yet, so the deal is just a game to him still. And then he meets 19-year-old Rebecca and falls in love. Three weeks after they meet, they rob NASA together. I'm not going to give away their method, because so much of the suspense comes from how the manage it, but the story unravels quite quickly from there (as you could imagine). It ends with Thad being sentences to 7.5 years in prison.
Sex on the Moon is a gripping read and, even if you're like me and and thought Thad was an idiot, he makes a compelling character. Perhaps the strangest thing about knowing that this is non-fiction, though, is trying to figure out how I could ever have missed such an incredible story in the first place. The answer: it got buried, and the whole idea that this is finally coming to light just adds another level of enjoyment. Perhaps the best part, though, is that knowing this is non-fiction seems to weight the pleasure you get out of reading it. It's sort of like enjoying food that's healthy – it seems sneaky, but in the best way possible.
Sex on the Moon: The Amazing True Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History
by Ben Mezrich
First published in 2011 (cover image from Doubleday edition)