07.19.11

Sex on a Pile of Moon Rocks

Ben Mezrich spins a sensational yarn from the true story of a NASA intern who went to jail for stealing moon rocks. He talks to Lizzie Crocker about the romantic kid behind the criminal, his controversial writing style, and his “brothers” in Hollywood.

Ben Mezrich has rolled out his third work of nonfiction—another dramatic, sexed-up, made-for-Hollywood rendering of a true story. The book was optioned months ago by the same producers who adapted Mezrich’s Accidental Billionaires into the Oscar-winning The Social Network, and his bestselling Bringing Down the House into the box-office hit 21. Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History is a fast-paced thriller replete with the author’s favorite tropes: college-aged geniuses, reckless ambition, and what Mezrich calls “the new American dream”—becoming rich in the most daring way possible.

Thad Roberts, the protagonist in Sex on the Moon, is cut from Mezrich’s now-signature character mold. “I write about nerds who go the extra mile and become rock stars,” Mezrich tells The Daily Beast. Disowned by his strict Mormon family at age 18 for having premarital sex, Roberts marries his high-school sweetheart, but leaves her at home in Utah when he’s accepted to NASA’s prestigious co-op program in Houston. Surrounded by other super-smart science types, Roberts breaks out of his repressed shell and becomes the BMOC of the Johnson Space Center. Suddenly, he’s sneaking into Shuttle Simulators and dreaming about being the first man to land on Mars. “Fantasy had always been his true talent, the cloak he’d wrapped himself in to protect him from the things he couldn’t control,” Mezrich writes.

Three years into the program, Roberts’ marriage is crumbling, and he falls madly in love with a girl at NASA. He decides to give her the moon—or, to be precise, $5 million worth of moon rock samples brought back from the Apollo missions. With the help of a third accomplice, they break into Roberts' professor’s lab and steal a 661-pound safe filled with moon specimens with the aim of selling them to a Belgian mineral dealer. Roberts also manages to fulfill his ultimate fantasy of having “sex on the moon”: He stuffs the rocks under the mattress pad of a hotel bed and goes at it with his girlfriend. They even place a little moon dust into each other’s mouths.

Mezrich’s followers may be disappointed to find only one hot and heavy scene slipped into Sex on the Moon, but they’ll likely dig the sexual innuendos interspersed throughout. To Roberts, the Astromaterials Lab is “a scientist’s wet dream;” his crush’s phone number is “like rocket fuel in his bathing-suit pocket.”

But just when Roberts thinks he’s pulled off the ultimate James Bond scheme, he gets caught in an FBI sting operation and is sentenced to 100 months in prison.

After Roberts was released, Mezrich caught wind of his story. The former NASA intern was eager to pour his heart out to the author, and Mezrich was instantly taken with him. In a series of interviews done while Roberts was still on probation, Mezrich found him to be “the nicest guy—really charismatic, friendly, very smart. I describe him as a romantic.” Not surprisingly, Roberts is depicted in a more sympathetic light than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to meet with Mezrich when he was writing Accidental Billionaires. The story is told largely from Roberts’ point of view, which creates a bit of a narrative pitfall. Given that Roberts is “somewhat delusional,” as Mezrich describes him, it’s hard for the reader to discern whether his “true story” is based on objective reality.

Given that Roberts is “somewhat delusional,” as Mezrich describes him to The Daily Beast, it’s hard for the reader to discern whether his “true story” is based on objective reality.

“There’s always going to be controversy when you write the way I write,” Mezrich says. “But I think it’s pretty clear [in Sex on the Moon] that all the facts are correct.” To his credit, they match with other journalists’ stories about Roberts, including one in the Los Angeles Times. The story gets hazy when Mezrich takes creative liberties, which he does frequently. Even the title of the book is a stretch. It’s hard to perceive what is true or false when Roberts rationalizes every morally ambiguous move he makes. To him, stealing national treasures—and 30 years of his mentor’s research notes—is no worse than a college prank. Moreover, it was all for love!

The author is quick to come to Roberts’ defense. “He did something foolish, but he did it because he fell in love and went crazy,” says Mezrich. Then there’s the issue of Roberts’ harsh upbringing. Isn’t it only natural that a repressed kid would rebel? Mezrich steers clear of dissecting Roberts’ psyche in the book, but he empathizes with his protagonist. “I’m not really qualified to figure out what was going on, but I definitely think he wanted to feel special. My mom’s first reaction after reading the book was, ‘Thad needed a hug from his mother.’”

There are other reasons why Mezrich would identify with Roberts. He comes from a long line of scientists, and his father was an engineer before he became a doctor. “I’ve always been around it, and I’ve always been fascinated by NASA,” he says, confessing that he, like Roberts, thinks astronauts are “rock stars.” After his books became recipes for blockbuster films, Mezrich went from a Harvard graduate and bestselling nerdy author to a bestselling nerdy author with movie star friends willing to bankroll his projects. “Kevin [Spacey] and Dana [Brunetti] are kind of my brothers in Hollywood,” Mezrich says. “You get people like them involved and you’re in great shape.” Mezrich hit the jackpot when Brunetti introduced him to Aaron Sorkin, who gave the author a shout-out during his Oscar acceptance speech for The Social Network.

Brunetti and his crew are already working on an adaptation of Sex on the Moon, and Mezrich has his fingers crossed that they’ll use the book title for the film. “I’m usually not good at titles but I think this is my best one so far.” Sex on the Moon certainly doesn’t stray from his familiar material, but he’s confident it will attract new readers. “I think this is going to be my biggest book. It’s the first kind of complex, more rounded story [I’ve written] in a lot of ways. It’s my first book that’s a romance. It’s the first one where you’ve got a heist!” Not just any old heist, but as Mezrich dubs it, “the most audacious heist in history.”