“In 2002, rogue NASA interns stole millions of dollars in moon rocks. This is the untold story of how they did it.Building 31 North’s white halls are empty, because it is the middle of the night. NASA interns Thad Roberts and Tiffany duck inside a bathroom, and tear off their clothing. Then they change into the contents of their duffel bags—2mm thick neoprene bodysuits. Like in a bad movie, the suits will help Thad and Tiffany avoid heat sensors armed to feel out threatening climate changes inside a vault. The adrenaline, their attraction, the smell of rubber suits and the fear of failure is almost overwhelming. After pulling on the thermally shielded gear, Tiffany and Thad step back into the corridor, moving toward the turnstile lock that guards their target: NASA’s prized stash of moon rocks.********Building 31 North, which sits on the grounds of Houston’s Johnson Space Center, is where NASA keeps all 600 pounds of the moon rocks it has secured. They are the sole property of the government, collected over six lunar missions and protected with the dramatic intensity of national treasures. Building 31 North is one of the few buildings on earth constructed under Class 100 standards—it is a structure that can withstand 1000 years of water submersion, among other durability metrics that should not be tested this side of Armageddon.Breaking into it is designed to be impossible for normal people. But not harder than building a shuttle, or figuring out how to put a rover on Mars. The agency hires people with the ability to find solutions for intimidatingly large problems exactly like this one. In this regard, Roberts was your typical NASA intern. The 25-year-old was pursuing multiple degrees in Physics, Geology and Anthropology. But while Thad was school smart, he also has an almost unquencheable adrenaline-seeking side, and was consumed with a strange Excel spreadsheet of personal goals that read like he was trying to prove himself to Evel Knievel and a rocket scientist at the same time: Experience zero gravity, check; experience severe dehydration, check; find dinosaur tracks, no problem. The list was long, and as he checked off one after another, maybe Thad’s ego began to believe anything was possible.But Thad wasn’t in this alone. He was on his way to a divorce fueled by an affair he was having with fellow intern Tiffany Fowler. Tiffany was equally dynamic—a firecracker and former cheerleader who spoke French in bed and conducted stem cell research on NASA’s behalf. Thad wanted her, so when Tiffany begged to hear his idea to liberate the moon rocks, he told her. And when she wanted to follow through with the plan, the romantic and exciting thing was to start hatching a plan as if it were yet another science problem at work. One that would could make them very rich, or ruin their lives.Soon one more curious co-op, the 19-year-old Shae Saur, had joined in on the heist. After months of preparation, they found themselves embarking on their unauthorized mission, driving for Building 31 North after dark with intel on every security device—and plans to get around them.
When it comes to Thad’s story, it is worth noting several things. I was not allowed to quote him directly from my interviews, and the others involved in the crime declined to verify his facts. This is his story as he told it to me. And in the time since, he’s written a novel about the heist, which was “”based on truth, but it’s embellished.”” So, take the tale for what it’s worth.The Space Center had been under 24-hour supervision since the 9/11 attacks, but the guards planted at each entryway are not in the habit of stopping NASA’s carefully selected interns—who are always working—from entering after hours.The guard said, “”You get a new car?””Thad replied, “”No, sir. Borrowed it to help a friend move.””So with a wave of a hand, Shae, Tiffany and Thad were granted access. Thad guided the Jeep Cherokee on the short journey past Rocket Park—an open sky cemetery of former rockets and spacecraft—then parked near the entryway of Building 31.Once they were in range, the three set about linking and looping the
cameras inside Building 31, a system that they had previously taped between shifts of employees responsible for watching the cameras. It is unknown how Thad and company received the intel required to do such a thing, even if the idea itself is straight out of a heist flick. But Shae stayed in the car to monitor the rewired cameras, to warn Tiffany and Thad if anything went wrong. While they prepped, they watched for the presence of fellow late night co-workers, but Thad timed their arrival well and they are alone. So far so good. Thad and Tiffany crawled out of the Jeep, grabbed their duffel bags, and headed for the entryway. Getting inside the front door was easy—a former coworker had simply emailed Thad the code that would allow them access. Inside jobs are often like this, but NASA doesn’t make it easy to steal moon rocks—the puzzle was only starting to get complicated.Inside the building, an unassuming university-like structure formed by blocks and filled with sterile white walls, Thad and Tiffany walked down well-lit hallways. The milky corridors, warmed by picture shrines to missions past, form the passageway between the offices of full time NASA employees, as well as the route to the inner sanctum of Building 31 North. They stopped to prepare.In the bathroom, when Thad and Tiffany put on their wetsuits, they also stopped to check their breathing apparatus. The moon rocks were in a chamber devoid of oxygen in order to keep the rocks from rotting by oxidation. They would have 15 minutes of air supplied from their tanks once they entered the nitrogen-filled chamber, past the airlock.If the interior of Building 31 can be described as white, then the interior of Building 31 North can be described as bleached—immaculate and bloodless in a wash of round-the-clock sterility. During the day, the single lab inside the pearly building buzzes with the movement of white jackets occupied by some of the biggest brains in the world. But at night, once the scientists have passed through the clean room that guards their entries and exits, the lab is nothing but white surfaces, cold metal, glass panels and the unearthly presence of nitrogen tanks. Thad and Tiffany’s path took them straight through clean room and across the empty laboratory, leaving them at the edge of a short hall that dead-ended at the door to the vault.Breaking into the actual vault required a complex series of codes, some of which were cracked using a dusting of calcite, fluorite and gypsum powder. The mix of the three glows under blacklight, and by paying careful attention to the absorption of the powder it is possible to tell which finger came down first and so forth. It doesn’t quite make sense that Thad could use this trick to figure out the exact sequence for all the codes, based off such rudimentary information. But once Thad had eventually thrown his whole weight against the vault door, the two were inside.The vault itself was much like the laboratory, a big room in which core samples and moon rocks are encased in glass and metal, numbered by mission. But they hadn’t the time to admire their surroundings. To stay on track—or more importantly, to stay alive—Thad and Tiffany had only 3 minutes to crack the safe, or they wouldn’t have enough air to get back outside.As the seconds crept onward, Thad continued to struggle with the code, so he quickly moved to plan B, which involved unbolting the heavy safe from the ground, loading it on to a small dolly and carting it back out to the car. It wasn’t easy, but within the remaining time allotted to them, the two managed to slip out of the vault, through the laboratory, down the hallways, past the rooms, through the doors and out of the grounds undetected—all while dragging over a quarter ton of rocks and metal. No small feat, and I’m unsure of how, even on a dolly, a man and a woman could have moved it all.NASA didn’t realize the safe was gone for two days. A list of suspects was slowly put together. There were no clues left behind—not a fingerprint, a piece of hair, nothing—so the resulting set of names (which was void of that of the actual culprits) looked more like a compiled NASA shitlist than anything else.The samples they took were from every Apollo mission, ever. Sometime between the heist and its resolution, Tiffany and Thad arranged the moon rocks on a bed—and had sex amongst them.”