I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a year. I don’t know why. Its been more than a decade since I knew Thad Roberts, the infamous NASA intern who stole a safe full of invaluable moon rocks and tried to sell them on the black market. Thad was my study partner in undergraduate physics courses, and he was the president of our astronomy club. My first star parties were with Thad, along with my first experiences with astronomical imaging. He was charismatic and influential at the University of Utah.
It came as a total surprise one morning when I saw Thad’s face on the newspaper front page. Thad had been away at NASA for a year or two, hoping to become an astronaut. I was utterly bewildered by his crime. Thad’s crime goes a step beyond science fraud. If fake science discredits the difference between truth and fiction, that’s bad enough. But Thad’s actions declared that science is meaningless, as if to say, “Truth? Fiction? Who cares? I’ll take the money.”
As the evidence began to flow, Thad was painted as a serial thief and a con artist, a far cry from the noble young scientist I thought I knew. Today, Thad is out of prison and seems less than contrite about his past actions, having rationalized them as acts of love (yeah but what about those fossils he stole from the museum??). He is now out of prison and styles himself as a public intellectual. He’s giving TEDx talks, operates a web site that sports a “public understanding of science” theme (and borrows the name of Einstein), and is working on a popular science book related to string theory. Thad’s crimes have been romanticized by a novel, an upcoming film and a documentary which all no doubt benefit Thad’s ego. According to NPR, the book was “one of the summer’s most fun reads” [Vomit]. I think blogger and author Catherine Ryan Howard summed it up better:
Thad Roberts had opportunities that I couldn’t even dream of. He got to work in the Lunar Sample Lab, the special facility that houses the moon rock the Apollo missions brought back to earth (if I was offered the opportunity to go anywhere at all on earth for one hour, that’d by my pick after the original Mission Control), and when news of the heist breaks, Roberts has just climbed out of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA’s astronauts practice working in zero gravity in the largest swimming pool in the United States. He actually has a chance of becoming an astronaut himself.
And what does it do with all this opportunity? He uses it to steal the most precious materials on earth, moon rocks, samples actually collected by hand by Apollo astronauts, and tries to offload them over the internet so he can make a buck. For a girl who was giddy for a week over a Kennedy Space Centre annual pass, this ridiculousness was hard to take.
Sex on the Moon is very sympathetic, and I couldn’t stomach the whole “he’s just a nice guy who did something impulsive and stupid” defense. Robert’s heist was as meticulously executed as Ethan Hunt’s trip to get the NOC list from Langley in Mission Impossible – this wasn’t a prank, it was a crime.
When someone explodes so publicly at such a young age, I wonder what happens in the many years that follow. Thad is an unusual case for two reasons. First, Thad is now a convicted felon, with all that entails. But second, Thad has managed to maintain a vision of himself as a sort of rogue science celebrity. For most professionals, self-destruction happens in the form of ethics violations, not outright crimes. They don’t go to jail, they don’t re-appear in the news or in interviews, and probably no one would want to see a movie about them.
But Thad doesn’t appear to be suffering. I’m bewildered by the apparent adventures described on his twitter feed. The way he tells it, he’s traveling the world, crashing with physicists, attending conferences… I’m not sure if he’s living it up with legitimate scientists
of or weirdos, but either way… Today’s average 30-something scientists are slaving away trying to pay their debts to society (i.e. student loans). Apparently Thad has paid his debt in full and is now living the high life.
Am I being uncharitable? Should I accept that Thad has been rehabilitated, and let it go? I don’t know. But I suspect he’s as much a charlatan now as before.