Behind the Scenes of 'Million Dollar Moon Rock Heist'

I first read about Thad Roberts in The Sun in 2002. It was a news in brief but the headline grabbed me: ‘Students Steal Moon Rocks’. It opened: “All the moon rocks collected by Apollo astronauts since 1969 were stolen by three students working at a Nasa centre.” I copied the story out into my notebook; for some reason, I wanted to find out more. But something didn’t ring true. ALL of the Apollo moon rocks?

US reports online showed that it was a selection of lunar materials, but there were samples from every Apollo mission between 1969 and 1974. Roberts had also managed to bag ALH84001, the famous meteorite that might contain fossilised evidence of microbiotic life on Mars (don’t flip the page, the sex and guns are coming). I pitched a print feature around but nobody wanted it, so I forgot about it.

Then in 2009, Thad, now out of the nick, gave an out-of-the-blue interview to online tech magazine Gizmodo. My jaw swung open.

Carmel Hagen, who interviewed Thad, let us read her 2009 email chain with him. He described a special ops-esque raid with oxygen tanks, dodging CCTV cameras, and hi-tech espionage techniques. He said he did it not for money but for love: after the break-in, he and his co-conspirator girlfriend, Tiffany Fowler, scattered the rocks over a hotel bed and made love on them – making them the first humans to have sex on the moon. I laughed when I read it; surely it was bollocks of the highest order. But what if it was true?

In 2010, Icon gave me a stint in development and I pitched a series of heist documentaries in which the presenter would be embedded in the recon. I wrote six episodes; number three was about Thad. National Geographic commissioned it as a standalone.

Thad was in Nasa’s elite Co-operative Education Programme. Hailed in some quarters as a physics genius, with a possible future as an astronaut, he hit upon a can’t-fail get-rich-quick scheme, only to betray his friends and loved ones, spend nearly a decade in prison through his own dumb greed, and reinvent himself as James Bond.

Million Dollar Moon Rock Heist is the true story of the biggest burglary in Nasa history – and the subsequent bust. We had to win the trust of Nasa, the FBI and Dr Everett Gibson, the esteemed scientist whom the gang hurt the most by stealing, and losing, his life’s work: 30 years’ worth of hand-written Apollo notebooks.

We also befriended Axel Emmermann (after whom Nasa named an asteroid) and tracked down and interviewed three of the four-strong gang, though only Gordon McWhorter agreed to be on camera.

Then came the bombshell: our research found that Thad’s version of events was at odds with nearly everyone else’s. There was no dodging CCTV cameras, Mission Impossible-style – there’s no CCTV in the building they stole the rocks from. FBI evidence photos of the hotel beds, and Gordon’s testament, suggest that it’s 99.9% not true that Roberts laid out the moon rocks to have sex on. “Nice story,” Gordon grins on screen.

Thad’s betrayed wife Kaydee spilled the beans comprehensively at her Utah home and at least half a dozen key witnesses gave taped interviews filling in the many gaps in his story and motives.

The brief suggested the channel wanted the moon on a stick. The budget, including two weeks filming across the US, would only get us the stick.

We filmed in high-security Nasa locations at Johnson and Kennedy Space Centres, dodgy Motel 6 bedrooms in Houston and pavements on the public side of the University of Utah, where we were banned. We hired three young actors and shot reconstructed scenes of the heist and its aftermath. Money, more than art, meant this was often at the same time as we filmed interviews, which sometimes took a little frantic explaining.

Best of all, we sourced and shipped a rare, vintage, five-door Mosler government-issue safe from New York to Texas just to destroy it. Worst of all, we had to cut a remarkable and moving interview with Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, who, with Gene Cernan, was the last man to walk on the moon. That we had too much story to include an actual moon-walker should give you a clue as to how thickened the plot became.

Thad came to see us when we were filming in Salt Lake City. He wouldn’t let us film him or even take notes, so we sat poolside while he talked about himself for two hours. Perhaps put out by his coming all this way without granting an interview, director Jeremy Bristow gave him the Panorama treatment.

Thad grew increasingly uncomfortable with the director’s gently story-destroying line of questioning. He said he couldn’t really remember the lunar lovemaking but suggested that maybe he’d placed the fishing-tackle box containing the rocks under the bed while he and Tiffany got down to more Earthy matters. So now it was more a metaphor, but technically it was still having sex on the moon. Right?

That Thad stole the moon rocks for the love of Tiffany is also questionable. He planned to steal and sell them at least a year before he’d even met Tiffany – that’s when he recruited Gordon. Before that, he’d broached the subject with another former student, who told me so in an interview.

We never could deliver a true life Oceans 11-style heist – that story only happened in Thad’s head. But we got a fascinating and action-packed insight into the mind of a master manipulator whose legacy to crime-lore was, basically, a smash and grab; and into a much smarter team of law enforcement pros who caught him.

He’s now about to get folk hero status in a Hollywood movie. It’s called Sex on the Moon. What else?

My tricks of the trade

  • Don’t mislead anyone, even if the result is a big “no”.
  • Smile, even if it hurts.
  • Be human. Be interested.
  • Take a crash course in US copyright law. Most Nasa footage is free, but use their logo at your peril.
  • Explain to contributors why you have to shoot the interview at least three times. And don’t forget to thank them.
  • Be charming with press officers, even if it hurts.
  • Buy the crew beer at the end of each day.
  • Nothing is bigger than the show.

Cleaning up

Alex Holden
Sound recordist 

Our kit needs were relatively modest. We principally used a Panasonic HDX900, in conjunction with a Sony PMW-F3 and a Canon 5D Mark II for reconstruction footage.

Filming at Nasa’s space centres means dealing with the agency’s equipment, with strong electromagnetic fields in some places and sensitive instruments in others. We had to ensure our camera and sound gear would not cause them any problems – and vice versa.

There was an incredibly congested RF spectrum. We would start filming at one end of a room, and by the time we had reached the other, the available frequencies were crowded with interference. Fortunately, I had hired Lectrosonics UM400a/UCR411a radio mics, which enabled me to scan quickly for clear operating frequencies. Problem solved.

Some environments were not just clean but virtually sterile. In the lunar vault, the Apollo moon rocks are stored in air-tight nitrogen chambers. Before filming, we had to spend hours stripping down our gear to have it thoroughly cleaned with alcohol swabs to avoid contaminating the lunar samples.

Some minerals in particular are a big no-no in the vault – gold, for example, can easily rub off and contaminate surfaces. So it was off with wedding rings and other bling – including 1/4-inch TRS audio jacks.

After the best clean our equipment had ever had, we were finally ready to enter. We donned our white bunny suits and walked into an airlock, where they poured clean, cold air over us to remove any final particles of dirt.

The final door opened and we stepped into the vault. All was going well until a couple of blades of grass that had been missed by the cleaning team fell out of my mixer bag. Quick as a flash, two Nasa techies dived on them and they were hustled from the room, presumably to be vaporised along with the cleaning team.

 This article first appeared in Broadcast May 10th, 2012 

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