123 – NASA Mission Leader Dante Lauretta – The Family Gamers Podcast

Xtronaut - the Game of Solar System Exploration

Today we have a real NASA scientist on the show! Welcome Dante Lauretta, Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Arizona.

Dante is the leader of a NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx, which has just arrived at a near-earth asteroid called Bennu. He tells us about that mission and what is planned for the spacecraft.

Dante has created three games, and that’s why we’re talking to him today.


Xtronaut was Dante’s first game. Where did it come from? Part of his work is outreach, especially to young kids (B&G club). He was trying to teach them how a rocket works (throw away the different stages of the rocket to get the payload into space). Started with flashcards of different types/parts of rockets, but the kids would stack them up and want to trade them with each other.

Originally the plan was a very simple after-school activity, and the more he learned, the more it grew.

Was space exploration always a passion?

Dante always wanted to be an explorer. Off on his bike in the Arizona desert as a kid. He really wanted to go somewhere no one had been before. Not many places on earth for that!

“There’s a whole solar system out there, that’s waiting to be explored.”

Working with kids is another passion for Dante, and he’s found that board games can help them get over a fear of science. We’re excited that there’s a movement of science-themed board games, and can’t wait to see what else is coming!

In fact, the science club at Dante’s local Boys and Girls Club has become science board game club instead. Biology, oceanography, chemistry, gravity, and planets are all represented in the games they have now.

The rulebooks for Dante’s games include a section that delves more heavily into the science, for players who want to learn more.


Constellations was Dante’s second game, in collaboration with Ian Zang. It’s a set-collection game based on placing the constellations into the night sky – and they glow in the dark!

Again, all the cards and tiles have additional information about the specific constellations and types of stars.


Downlink is the newest game, currently on Kickstarter. Xtronaut was about assembling the rocket on the launchpad. Originally, Downlink was going to be an expansion, exploring what happens once you get out in space.

Eventually, Downlink grew into its own game, and it’s aimed more towards gamer community. It’s more challenging and strategic, involving resource management, and lots of decision making and thinking ahead.

We talk about progression in difficulty and complexity; not just in the games, but also in Dante’s game design skills. In Downlink, he worked hard on probability and die rolls, to incorporate the feel of risk management involved in the real world.

Playing Games with Kids

Dante’s sons have been game players “from the beginning”. “They really enjoy browsing Kickstarter with me…” One of their recent favorites is Vikings Gone Wild, where you build up your clans, explore, and fight off invaders. They’ve also turned LEGO Heroica into a more serious roleplaying game.

Of course, they also help a lot with playtesting Xtronaut games! His youngest son is even working on his own game design right now.

More on Downlink

Mechanics: Start making big decisions right away. Invest your resources. Manage your time. How and when do you want to score your points? Specialize! There are three base types of cards: Technical, Management, and Cost – but half will be discarded to allow you to perform actions. Watch out – other players may take the cards you discarded!

Modular: Any player can attach a vehicle to your rocket; anyone can attach instruments to the vehicle. It’s rare that a single player can build the rocket and the vehicle and the necessary instruments… so there’s a degree of necessary cooperation, fragile-alliance style.

Dice rolling: Every action requires rolls, although you can stack the odds in your favor by training up your team(s).

Some set collection: Science discovery cards, you must collect matching type(s) of data when you downlink.

If you could tell all the kids in the world one thing, what would it be?

Never give up on your dreams… If you believe in yourself and you look for the people out there that are willing to help you – We are there!… The solar system is out there, waiting for us to explore it, and you can be the next leader of solar system exploration.

Find Dante online:

Find Dante mostly on Twitter: @DSLauretta

OSIRIS-REx mission:

Website: asteroidmission.org

Facebook: @OSIRISREx

Twitter: @OSIRISREx

Instagram: @osiris_rex

Find us online:

Facebook: @familygamersaa
Twitter: @familygamersaa
Instagram: @familygamersaa

Community: thefamilygamers.com/community

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Until next week, play science games with your kids!