It Started as Winter Break. It Ended With a Doomed Moon Mission.

A gaggle of students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh traveled to Florida last month during their winter break.

The students, many of them studying to be engineers and scientists, went there to watch a rocket launch that would send a small 4.8-pound robotic rover that they had helped build on its journey to the moon. Afterward, they hoped to have time for some sun and fun, renting a large house just three blocks from the beach.

Their trip did not go as planned.

“We never saw the beach,” said Nikolai Stefanov, a senior studying physics and computer science.

The rover, named Iris, headed toward the moon on schedule in a perfect inaugural flight of Vulcan, a brand-new rocket. But the spacecraft carrying the rover malfunctioned soon after launch, and the students turned their rental house into a makeshift mission control as they improvised how to get the most out of the rover’s doomed journey.

“We had a mission,” said Connor Colombo, the chief engineer for Iris. “It wasn’t the mission we thought. And in fact, maybe that made it more interesting because we had to do a lot of thinking on our feet, and I’m really grateful to have had that.”

A vacation home in Florida turned into a makeshift mission control for the Iris rover team including Connor Colombo, the chief engineer, and Raewyn Duvall, the program manager.Credit…Carnegie Mellon University

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