How Building a Real-Life Spacecraft Inspired a Game of Space Exploration

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Next year, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will launch and begin its mission to asteroid 101955 Bennu. After a three-year journey, it will rendezvous with the 63,000 mph asteroid and spend another year and a half scanning and mapping it. The mission culminates with the spacecraft grabbing a chunk of Bennu and flying back to Earth. The sample capsule will then have to separate, survive reentry and freefall, and deploy a parachute a mere 1.9 miles above the Utah desert, where it will land softly. OSIRIS-REx will serve as a sort of celestial time machine, and the asteroid piece it returns will give scientists a pristine fragment of the pre-formed solar system. 

If you haven't heard of this extraordinary feat of science and engineering, it's because the president’s budget proposal in 2013 eliminated education and public outreach funding for NASA, and the OSIRIS-REx program had to cut its publicity efforts. (At the time, it happened to be going through its confirmation review, where NASA and the mission team come to an accord over what will be delivered for the cost provided.)

Dante Lauretta, the mission's leader, decided to take matters into his own hands to find a way to educate the public—not just with respect to the science and wonder of exploring the unknown, but also to the political and economic minefield that is space exploration. Lauretta and the OSIRIS-REx team are self-described “hardcore gamers,” and from that hobby have developed the first game of politics and planetary exploration.

Xtronaut is a card-based strategy game currently in the opening phases of its Kickstarter campaign. Players are placed in the role of planetary scientists, and mission cards determine where in the solar system they must go (send a boat to the methane seas of Titan, for example, or place a spacecraft in orbit around Europa). Players are tasked with building a rocket and designing a mission suitable for the destination. For example, your flyby of Pluto might require collecting cards for an Atlas V core with multiple boosters, as well as catching a gravity assist from Jupiter. Mission progress is hindered by way of action cards, which trigger government shutdowns and NASA audits—precisely the sorts of problems real space missions encounter. The result is an innovative public education effort unlike anything planetary exploration has ever seen.


When Lauretta first joined OSIRIS-REx, part of his job involved leading the mission's education and public outreach. "I really feel these missions, as awesome as they are for science—and I don’t want to sell the science short—also inspire our nation and the world, especially young people, to think big and achieve big things," he tells mental_floss.

When the education component was eliminated from the mission budget (and taken away from NASA itself), Lauretta says he was "devastated" but unable to fight the decision due to a tight launch schedule. The spacecraft has to lift off in September 2016 in order to arrive at its destination, and orbital mechanics can't wait.

Meanwhile, the University of Arizona, where he is a faculty member, hired a new president, Ann Weaver Hart, who encouraged professors to start businesses spun-off from faculty ideas. "I sat down and said, ‘Well, gee, I’ve got an education program that I started that’s now defunct, and I’ve got a university president encouraging me to start a company. I’ve never done anything like that before, so let’s give it a shot.’" And with that, Xtronaut was born.


Lauretta regularly plays cooperative games like Castle Panic and Settlers of Catan with his children, and for years he and members of the OSIRIS-REx team have held monthly game nights where they play epic strategy games like Twilight Imperium.

For Xtronaut, he was inspired by Dominion, a card-deck-building game that takes place in a medieval setting. Lauretta originally developed Xtronaut to teach students about the science of launching things from Earth. "If you want to go to a certain place in the solar system, how much energy do you need? How much delta-v, which is our change in velocity? How fast do you have to get the spacecraft moving relative to the Earth to get to your target?"

During development, Lauretta brought an Xtronaut deck to an OSIRIS-REx game night. The team suggested that he add elements beyond simply building the rocket. Lauretta considered the sorts of problems OSIRIS-REx had during its development, including a government shutdown and the administrative theft by the Air Force of a rocket engine. He also considered the occasional positives encountered: a budget surplus or spare parts inherited from another mission. The game's strategic and interactive elements evolved from there and have been honed through a year of play-testing.


True OSIRIS-REx experiences that are in the game include the possibility of a government shutdown. "That’s one of my favorite cards because that is one of the most frustrating things that we face. It hit us in late 2013 with the OVIRS instrument. Just sitting there watching my colleagues for weeks while their beautiful flight hardware was slipping behind schedule—it was really frustrating." In the game, a government shutdown card means you lose a turn.

The "National Priority" card is representative of another situation real planetary missions face. The OSIRIS-REx launch vehicle requires an RD-180 rocket engine, which are manufactured in Russia. Because of the crisis in Ukraine, Congress imposed limits on the number of RD-180s available to the military. As a result, the U.S. Air Force "acquired" the RD-180 that was scheduled to launch OSIRIS-REx. A replacement is scheduled for late this year, and a delay could prove catastrophic for the mission. Based on this experience, the team also developed an "International Sanctions" card, limiting a player's ability to use one component of his or her launch vehicle.

"It’s kind of funny to be running OSIRIS-REx now, and something happens and I’m like, 'Gee, what would that card look like in Xtronaut?'" says Lauretta. For example, the actual spacecraft is set to launch in September 2016, which is the peak of hurricane season. "We started talking about what are we going to do if there’s a hurricane coming and our rocket’s assembled. How do we button up? When do we de-pack and actually ship back to our payload handling facility? And I thought, a hurricane, that would be a pretty cool card for Xtronaut. So that’s how it’s continued to evolve."

The Xtronaut Kickstarter runs through early October. Pending any real-life "Government Shutdown" cards, OSIRIS-REx launches next year.