Moon material subject of fascination and a multimillion-dollar heist
Perhaps the oldest item in any museum can be found at Space Center Houston, where 3.8 billion-year-old moon rocks are on display. The four dark-colored specimens, collected on Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17, are only a fraction of the moon rocks collected by NASA. But more than 20 million people have touched one of these gray stones that have given scientists reams of information about the moon’s surface.
The remaining moon samples — probably about 900 pounds of rocks — have never been exposed to the Earth’s atmosphere. Those rocks are stored in a pristine controlled and sealed environment of inert gas, said Paul Spana, exhibits director at Space Center Houston. If the rocks had been exposed to oxygen, their properties would change and they no longer would be as useful for scientific experiments. There’s neither water nor oxygen on the moon, and the rocks’ chemical make-up would be altered and no longer pure.
“They would become like an Earth rock,” Spana said.
From these rocks, scientists can learn more about the origin of the Earth, he said.
The moon rocks are perhaps Space Center Houston’s most sought-after exhibits, Spana said.
“People like to take pictures of their hands touching the moon rock,” Spana said of the one Space Center Houston allows visitors to touch.
The allure of these rocks — their history, notoriety and value — was so strong that three NASA interns devised a plan in 2002 to steal some of the rocks and sell them, according to reports.
The rocks were worth at least $21 million, though prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to value the stolen lunar and some Martian material at between $2.5 million and $7 million, according to reports.
In June 2002, two interns slipped inside the NASA laboratory and made off with a 600-pound safe, containing 53 lunar rocks, 165 meteorite fragments, including one piece of a Mars meteorite. A third monitored the doors watching for security, according to reports.
A fourth accomplice helped them advertise their availability on the internet, and a Belgium meteor collector responded with an interest in buying the rocks. Moon dust sells for thousands of dollars for tiny amounts, so the opportunity to buy a rock was enticing. But the buyer became suspicious and contacted the FBI. In short, a sting was set up in Orlando, Florida, and three of the burglars were caught and arrested, according to reports. The fourth accomplice was arrested in Houston in July 2002 — the 33rd anniversary of the first moon walk.
The mastermind of the heist, Thad Roberts, said he did it for love, saying he conceived the idea to impress fellow intern and co-conspirator Tiffany Fowler, according to reports.
Along with Fowler, Roberts’ partners in crime were Shae Saur and the fourth associate, Gordon McWhorter from Utah, who didn’t take part in the theft, but was accused of setting up the website and sending e-mails, also was arrested and charged in the conspiracy, according to reports.
What happened to them? All three NASA interns pleaded guilty. 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), according to the FBI. Gordon McWhorter, who was not working as a NASA intern, maintained his innocence, but was convicted at trial and sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail, according to reports.
Fowler and intern Saur were given probated sentences.
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,” according to the FBI. “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.”
Space Center Houston is a nonprofit gateway to NASA Johnson Space Center. spacecenter.org