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Can an Amateur Pull Off The Perfect Crime?
Do you have to be a master thief to steal priceless items?
For anyone who has watched such movies as the Italian Job or Oceans 11 (12 or 13), we are exposed to the inner psyche of a master thief who has planned for every contingency or problem. Nothing surprises them and in the end everything works out for the best with them getting the jewels never hurting anyone who didn't already deserve it. This story shows another side of a master thief who attempted to steal one of the highly guarded and most priceless objects in the world. It shows the story of innocent people hurt and entire lives destroyed. Learn more about the story and the amazing story of three incredibly smart kids who stole a part of the moon.
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One of the wonderful parts of this story is the insider view at one of the last meccas of engineering and science in the modern world, NASA. This is a government agency that has a history of setting out the loftiest of goals (put a man in space, walk on the moon, bring humans to Mars) and finding out the solutions after. This is an agency that doesn’t know the words can’t or impossible; they find a way using some of the smartest minds in the world. This story takes the readers inside those hallowed walls of science and engineering and brings us closer to the people who work there.
The lead character, Thad Roberts, a former Mormon who was cut out from the church and his family for having sex prior to marriage but who yearns for something greater. He focuses all of his education to gain access to NASA not as a full time employee but simply as an intern hoping to impress enough to gain full time employment. Thad successfully becomes an intern and sets out to be one step better than any other intern, to put in the hours and the work to be the best. As part of that drive to be the best, he volunteers for virtually every assignment and thus gains access to areas and things most never see. This included the incredibly well protected rock samples from the moon located at NASA headquarters.
What is so special about some rocks?
Before we go into details on the theft, perhaps its best to understand what makes moon rocks the most priceless objects on the planet. The brief answer is because they are not from this planet. With the exception of the United States no other country has walked on the moon or more importantly collected samples that can be used for science. This type of monopoly has certainly helped increase the value of these rocks both to civilian collectors and scientists who want to run experiments. As such NASA has maintained extremely tight security to not only guard against theft but also to prevent contamination that might impact experiments conducted by scientists from around the world. So precious are they that to even have possession of one of these rocks is a federal crime. This was the very objects that Thad dreamed about stealing.
Without giving away details that might spoil the book for readers, Thad began to imagine an opportunity where he could steal and sell just a few of these rocks to set himself up financially for life. Working through the problem with a couple of friends, he devises what he believes is the perfect crime to steal what he claims were ‘trash’ rocks that NASA no longer considered viable for experiments. Perhaps justification for his crime, he reasons that distributing them to those who would see value in them versus leaving them locked in a safe, while also adding some dollars to his pocket was a win-win solution. Successfully managing the heist, he moves into the sale where he is caught by the FBI and sent to prison for almost 10 years. The sad part of this story is how much potential he and his co-conspirators had before they flushed their careers down the drain. Even worse is the violation of an organization whose only purpose was the pursuit of science and exploration. It is similar to the thought of stealing from a grandmother who only loves their family. Hopefully it has not ruined the culture of NASA permanently.
Review of the book
Most of the stories written by Ben Mezrich share the common challenge of knowing where the facts finish and the dramatization begins. Clearly Mezrich sides with Thad trying to show him as a loveable, well meaning if not somewhat innocent youth who was led astray. He shows a side of scientists that looks more like something that you would expect to see in a Hollywood blockbuster as compared to a work of non-fiction. An extremely interesting story if even half of it is true, one that will capture your attention and keep you reading until you hit the very last page. Sadly good stories are just that, stories. This one will leave you asking for more in terms of what really happened at NASA and not just the side of the thief himself. If you happen to see this book at the library and want something fun and easy to read on a plane, help yourself. Otherwise there are plenty of other great science stories to choose from.
What we can learn from this story
Regardless of the facts of the story there is at least one moral of the story. Perhaps surprisingly I am not focusing on the obvious one of “Thou shall not steal”, or perhaps the concept of self-justification is still no excuse for theft. It is something I think is subtler. The story of Thad Roberts is of a young man who had a goal and wouldn’t let anything stand in his way to achieving his dreams. He studied and worked extremely hard and even took on free assignments to gain valuable experience and skills that might come in useful in the future. When he hit a roadblock he would focus and try to think of ways to overcome. For each of us, how many of us remember times when we didn’t know how to do something and went to a teacher or parent for help only to get a small direction and then told to work out the rest for ourselves. It is far too easy it seems these days to take the easy path of just Googling a problem versus taking the time to try and figure it out on your own. Yet there will be a time when you can’t just look something up, but need to use your own skills and knowledge. When extremely motivated people work hard to find a solution to a problem, there is no end to the potential. Perhaps you will be the person to help find a way to get us to Mars.