It was an idea born at least partially out of frustration: In 2013, Dante Lauretta was gearing up for OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid sample return mission he would lead as the principal investigator while working as a professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. OSIRIS-REx was the third mission selected as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and one of the things that excited Lauretta most about its roughly $800 million budget was that about $8 million had been earmarked for public outreach and education.
And then, as happens when one is dependent on the United States government for funding, that money got cut.
Lauretta made his displeasure known to the powers-that-be at NASA, but instead of giving up altogether, he took matters into his own hands. He formed a company with Washington, D.C.-based space tourism expert and entrepreneur, Mike Lyon, and together they began to brainstorm innovative ways to educate kids about the complex and often frustrating process of space travel. “I was disappointed in the government, but I said, ‘I’m going to try to find another way to do this,’” Lauretta tells NOW.SPACE.
Eventually, Lauretta began talking to kids at the nearby Boys and Girls Club, a place he had frequented growing up and had worked at as a volunteer. He realized many of the kids didn’t understand that the rocket that had launched a mission like OSIRIS-REx was not actually the key component—that the rocket was actually just a conduit to launch a small satellite into space. He created flashcards to teach them about the different components of a launch, and the kids did what kids do: They turned it into a game, trading flashcards with each other, and trying to collect the full set of cards that would allow them to “launch” into space.
Lauretta had been a board game enthusiast his whole life, and he and Lyon saw an opportunity. In 2015, they launched a Kickstarter for a game known as Xtronaut, and after being named a Kickstarter staff pick and receiving financial support of more than $36,000 (well above and beyond their original goal), they published it in 2016 to overwhelmingly positive reviews and a Best of 2016 designation from Good Housekeeping magazine.
Credit: Xtronaut Enterprises
But Lauretta and Lyon were not done. The Kickstarter for their second game, Constellations, was funded as of April 23rd, and the team is now moving into the production phase. Along the way, Lauretta says, he’s learned far more about the board game business than he ever could have imagined, while also managing to at least partially bridge the gap created by his frustrations with government bureaucracy.
Thank you to everyone who supported our @kickstarter campaign – 290% funded!
— Dante Lauretta (@DSLauretta) April 23, 2017
“I personally feel a responsibility to do it,” Lauretta says. “Just as a civil duty, as part of my job, I feel like I have to pay it forward.”
The primary challenge in creating Xtronaut—in which players try to put together and launch a space mission before their opponents–was to find a way to make a game that reflected the realities of a mission like OSIRIS-REx (which launched last September and is now more than 100 kilometers from earth) without getting so bogged down in the complexities that it would prove too difficult to be fun. Lauretta imagined a game that would appeal to kids somewhere between the 5th grade and the 8th grade, a game that would “present material so that you’re not talking at them but talking to them,” he says.
Fortunately, Lauretta had plenty of test subjects: In addition to the Boys and Girls club, his mother volunteered at a local elementary school, so Lauretta talked to the kids in his mother’s class. His business partner, Lyon, has a son who took an interest in the game, as well. Eventually, he and Lyon figured how to incorporate the requisite math and science without overwhelming their target audience. Some of it involved using comparative examples–like the similarities of a blown-up balloon being let go to that of a rocket propelling itself into space, or the concrete notion of an asteroid standing as tall as the Empire State Building. Then they had to figure out elements like manufacturing costs and distribution, which proved almost as challenging as the composition of the game itself.
Credit: Xtronaut Enterprises
Still, in the process, Lauretta got to vent some of his disappointments. Xtronaut incorporates the possibility that one’s mission will get derailed by budget cuts or financial audits. “I included that as a personal thing,” Lauretta admits. “It made me feel better.”
Now, with Constellations, Lyon and Lauretta are hoping to inspire kids in a different way: by deepening their fascination with the stars. Many of them, Lauretta says, might only know of the constellations as elements of the horoscope; they might not realize that astronomers use constellations to map out the sky. Working with Ian Zang of the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh, Lauretta and his partners devised a game that could potentially lead kids to look up into space rather than down at the various electronic devices that surround them on a daily basis.
“In order to play a constellation, you have to collect the right set of stars,” Lauretta says. “And every card has a unique and fun ‘star fact.’”
— Dante Lauretta (@DSLauretta) February 28, 2017
As opposed to Xtronaut, Lauretta says, Constellations is geared more toward collecting sets rather than a single goal, so the strategy is a bit more open. But it seems to have appealed to many of the families and kids who fell in love with Xtronaut, as it so easily exceeded its initial funding goal. In addition, a sponsorship by Meade Instruments allowed Lauretta and his partners to offer a Meade telescope—targeted toward viewing of this summer’s total solar eclipse–as one of the gifts for a donation of $129 or greater.
“I was in South America last week and I went outside and immediately recognized Centaurus,” Lauretta says. “I never would have spotted Centaurus if I hadn’t been working on this game for the past year.”