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Out of this world heist leads to 'Sex on the Moon'

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
"Sex on the Moon" chronicles NASA trainee Thad Roberts, who stole 17 pounds of moon rocks from Johnson Space Center.
"Sex on the Moon" chronicles NASA trainee Thad Roberts, who stole 17 pounds of moon rocks from Johnson Space Center.
  • "Sex on the Moon" chronicles the true story of Thad Roberts
  • Roberts went to prison for stealing moon rocks from NASA to impress his girlfriend
  • Ben Mezrich's previous books were turned into movies "The Social Network" and "21"

(CNN) -- An aspiring astronaut steals a safe full of moon rocks worth millions to impress his girlfriend.

Sounds like the pitch to the latest Hollywood heist movie, and it may soon end up on the big screen, but this story really happened and now it's become one of the summer's most buzzed-about books. Best-selling author Ben Mezrich has turned the true-life caper into "Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History."

Mezrich chronicles the exploits of Thad Roberts, a 25-year-old NASA trainee who in 2002 stole 17 pounds of moon rocks from Johnson Space Center, got caught and went to federal prison. Roberts claims he did it all in the name of love.

This is the 12th book from Harvard graduate who has created his own subgenre of nonfiction, chronicling the stories of young geniuses, some with questionable ethics, who challenge the establishment in a quest to make millions, even billions of dollars. Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House," about MIT students who won big at blackjack, was turned into the 2008 movie, "21."

His previous book "The Accidental Billionaires," became the Oscar-winning movie, "The Social Network" last year. Now "Sex on the Moon" is climbing the best-seller lists, getting rave reviews and is also headed for a Hollywood adaptation.

CNN spoke with the author, who's now on a national tour promoting his book. The following is an edited transcript of our interview:

CNN: This sounds more like a Hollywood heist movie, but amazingly "Sex on the Moon" is a true story. What led you to write it?

Mezrich: Actually, Thad's story came to me. Soon after he was released from prison, he reached me through mutual friends; he'd read my stuff in prison and wanted to tell me his story. Ever since "Bringing Down The House" and especially since "The Social Network" every genius kid who pulls of a scheme calls me, but this story was different -- it really blew my mind. I'd always wanted to write about NASA, because when you think of NASA you think of the '60s, the Apollo stuff, not the NASA of today. Thad's story was a great way to get inside one of the most amazing places on earth.

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CNN: Tell me more about Thad Roberts, the man at the center of your book.

Mezrich: Thad is the most complex character I've ever written about. He's brilliant, charismatic, very nice, and yet he did this crazy thing that derailed his life and ruined his dreams. He fell in love, did something stupid for love -- but more than that, he became this James Bond character. Usually, the geeky guys I write about do what they do because they can't get laid. Thad was kind of the opposite. He got in trouble because he could get the girl.

CNN: Where is Roberts now?

Mezrich: Utah. When he got out of prison, he went back to the University of Utah to finish his Ph.D. Currently, I think he's looking for somewhere else to continue that work -- he's got a theory of physics he's been working on, and he's really out there. He's an intense, interesting person, so I have no idea what's next for him.

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CNN: Hollywood turned your last book, "The Accidental Billionaires" into the Oscar-winning film, "The Social Network." I understand similar plans are under way for "Sex on the Moon."

Mezrich: Yes, the same producers from "The Social Network" are making "Sex On The Moon." Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Mike DeLuca, Kevin Spacey. They are unbelievable talents and it's amazing to have them making this. It's with Sony/Columbia Pictures again, they've done such great things with my previous two movies. It's going to be awesome. And hopefully "Sex On The Moon" will be my first movie that keeps the title of the book! How can you not love "Sex On The Moon?"

CNN: I understand your wife helped you come up with the book title?

Mezrich: Yes, she was the dirty mind behind "Sex On The Moon." In the story, Thad actually spread some moon rocks on a bed and had sex with his girlfriend on them, so that's where it comes from. But I think it's very catchy.

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CNN: You've written about card-counting math geniuses, Facebook billionaires, and a failed moon- rock heist. They all show a darker side of the American dream, so what draws you to these stories?

Mezrich: I live vicariously through my subjects. I try to be Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs, guns, and alcohol. I am fascinated by geeks turned rock stars, by smart people who do crazy things, by stories involving sex, money and betrayal. It's what I like to read and watch so it's what I like to write.

CNN: What are you working on next?

Mezrich: A couple of projects, a documentary TV show where I go inside these wild stories every week, a scripted show idea or two, but I don't have my next book yet. I'm waiting for someone to call me with a crazy enough story.

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