The great Moonrock heist

Moonrocks might just be the most valuable commodity on Earth.

No one in the Apollo program could have foreseen just how valuable they’d become and how elaborate the plots, counterplots, scams and stings to purchase and recover them would become.

The Apollo 11 astronauts returned some 48 pounds of rocks; Apollo 12, 76 pounds; Apollo 14, 94 pounds; Apollo 15, 169 pounds; Apollo 16, 210 pounds; and Apollo 17, a whopping 243 pounds. Following the Apollo 11 mission and again after Apollo 17, President Richard Nixon directed NASA to create individual displays of lunar material to be shared with some 135 countries, every U.S. state and Puerto Rico. The Moonrocks were carefully wrapped and placed in containers to prevent contamination, then sent to a storage facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Most are still there today. But not all. Almost half of all lunar samples have been stolen or are missing. 

In 1998, a federal law enforcement undercover operation was created to identify and arrest people selling bogus Moonrocks. This sting operation, known as Operation Lunar Eclipse, ran a quarter-page advertisement in USA Today asking for Moonrocks. The operation netted fakes, of course, but also the actual Honduras Moonrock. This Moonrock had been given to Honduras by Nixon, fallen into private hands, and was on sale for $5 million. Billionaire and one-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot promised to ante up the $5 million. He never had to pay, of course; the feds swooped in and nabbed the rock and sellers. It’s now safely displayed at the Centro Interactivo Chiminike in beautiful downtown Tegucigalpa.

The heist

In 2002, three enterprising NASA interns stole a 600-lb. safe containing Moonrocks from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, hauled it to a motel room and busted it open. The mastermind, a Utah student named Thad Roberts, had contacted a mineralogist in Belgium to sell the rocks. (And to have sex with his girlfriend on the rocks – sex on the Moon!) The spooked mineralogist promptly contacted the FBI, who emailed Roberts posing as the mineralogist’s sister-in-law. The price? Up to $5,000 a gram, which put the total value of the rocks at about $21 million. That’s closer to $40 million in 2023. Roberts was nabbed and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for this caper, and for swiping dinosaur bones from a Utah museum.

He’s since written a book, Einstein’s Intuition: Visualizing Nature in Eleven Dimensions; had a book written about his escapades, Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History; had a documentary made about his adventures; is a public speaker; and espouses theories on quantum gravity as a ‘philosopher of physics’ for a private think tank. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

How much is a genuine Moon Rock worth today? Estimates vary, but up to $10 million isn’t unreasonable. That’s for a rock smaller than your thumb and weighing less than one ounce.