The Player of Games: A round of Downlink with Dante Lauretta

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In the late 80s and early 90s, when he was in high school and college, Dante Lauretta played board games that could drag on for days. There was Supremacy, where the goal was conquering the world, and Diplomacy, where you do the same, but by forming alliances. He even played Civilization before it became a best-selling computer game.

Now a 48-year-old University of Arizona planetary science professor and the principal investigator for NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, Lauretta still has all the traits of a successful game player. He is strategic and persistent: NASA passed on OSIRIS-REx twice before finally approving the mission in 2011. He's also a natural leader: friendly and approachable, but in a game of  Dungeons and Dragons, there's no question he'd be the Dungeon Master, crafting the story for everyone else.

After a 2-year journey, OSIRIS-REx — formally the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer — is just 12 days and 100 kilometers away from its target asteroid, Bennu. But that’s not Lauretta’s only big project about to come to fruition. Last week, he launched a Kickstarter fundraiser for this third privately developed board game, Downlink: The Game of Planetary Discovery.

ROCKETGUT! recently joined Lauretta and four other scientists and engineers for a game of Downlink at the OSIRIS-REx operations center in Tucson, Arizona. When we arrived, we found Lauretta setting up the game in a high-ceilinged room with cubicle dividers, a couple couches, and a ping pong table. The OSIRIS-REx crew calls it the Swamp, because it has no air conditioner — just an evaporative cooler. If the operations center is Lauretta's house, it felt like were about to play board games in his basement.

 Dante Lauretta. © Porter McDonald

Dante Lauretta. © Porter McDonald

The goal of Downlink is to send spacecraft out into the solar system to make scientific discoveries. You score points along the way by launching spacecraft, shepherding them to three randomly selected destinations, and downloading science data back to Earth.

For our game, the destinations were Pluto, Vesta, and Bennu; we jokingly accused Lauretta of stacking the deck for the latter.

"There's a lot of great science at Bennu," he deadpanned.

Downlink is a gamer's game. It takes a good two hours to play, and it's complex; each player's turn has three phases, and in one phase, you can take three out of a possible 12 actions. Lauretta didn't play; instead, he guided us from the head of the table and took notes for tweaking the game before it ships.

You start by building rockets at the world's six major launch centers and attaching orbiters, landers, and rovers. Those spacecraft, in turn, need science instruments to make specific discoveries at different destinations. At Pluto, for instance, you can do cosmochemistry, geophysics, geology, and atmospheric science, providing you have a spacecraft there equipped with the appropriate instruments.

But here's the rub: you have a finite pool of resource cubes that you plunk down when taking actions like building a rocket or moving a spacecraft. While the rocket is still on Earth, anyone can add spacecraft or science instruments, and once a spacecraft reaches orbit, players who have resource cubes on it can jostle to control its instruments. This adds a fun collaborative-combative element to the game.

Sipping seltzer and crunching on pretzels, our group spent the first portion of Downlink getting missions ready to launch. Kat Volk, a staff scientist at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, placed a Japanese H-II series rocket on the pad at Tanegashima Space Center, the country's main launch facility. She added a small orbiter, which I outfitted with a microwave spectrometer and radar.

To launch a rocket, move a spacecraft, or downlink science data, you roll dice, which determines whether you will succeed or fail. You can roll extra dice by investing in training, experience, and readiness tests; the more dice you roll, the better your odds of success. Volk was ready to launch, so Lauretta pulled out his laptop to look up the odds for her particular scenario.

She had a 91 percent chance of success, a 6 percent chance of a launch scrub, and a 3 percent chance of the rocket blowing up. Those odds are fairly close to industry standards; once off the pad, SpaceX's Falcon 9 has a success record of 97 percent, and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V has a perfect record.

Volk rolled. The rocket launched successfully. We were in orbit.  

 Clockwise from upper left: Chet Maleszewski, Kat Volk, Brian Lovelace, Dante Lauretta, Jason Davis, Sondy Springmann.

Clockwise from upper left: Chet Maleszewski, Kat Volk, Brian Lovelace, Dante Lauretta, Jason Davis, Sondy Springmann.

In 2013, as OSIRIS-REx made its way from the drawing board to the launch pad, NASA cut the mission's education and public outreach funding as part of a larger budget consolidation plan.

"I was really mad," Lauretta said. "It was one of the reasons I got into the job in the first place."

He volunteers with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson, and at the time was using homemade flash cards to educate kids who only had a "Bugs Bunny model" understanding of rocketry, he said. The flash cards were a hit, and eventually morphed into something between trading cards and a game. Lauretta realized he could take it a step further and create a full-fledged board game, which could help fulfill some of the outreach goals lost when the OSIRIS-REx education budget was cut.

Though he had never built a game from scratch, that turned out to be the easy part, thanks to an emerging cottage industry for board game designers, as well as friends and family eager to help with testing. The hard part, Lauretta said, was making it work from a legal standpoint. He created Xtronaut Enterprises, which is technically a University of Arizona spinoff, and a conflict-of-interest plan that would satisfy everyone involved. It took NASA a while to warm up to the idea, he said.

In September 2015, Lauretta launched a Kickstarter campaign for XTRONAUT: The Game of Solar System Exploration, with a goal of raising $15,000. He ended up raising more than double that, and the game won a Good Housekeeping toy award.

“Then I got the bug,” he said. Two years later, in 2017, he made Constellations: The Game of Stargazing and The Night Sky, a simpler game for the whole family. After that, he decided it was time to go back to his roots and make something more complex. The result was Downlink.

Volk began moving her spacecraft towards Bennu. Near Earth, it’s one of the easiest objects to reach in the game. Sondy Springmann, a UA Lunar and Planetary Lab graduate research associate, blasted a spacecraft into orbit using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, taking the lead with nine points. Brian Lovelace, an OSIRIS-REx software engineer, launched a third rocket, and Springmann lofted yet another. The inner solar system was getting crowded, yet myself and Chet Maleszewski, an OSIRIS-REx data analyst, were lagging behind.

I finally got some points when Volk's spacecraft arrived at Bennu, using the spectrometer to downlink some cosmochemistry data. (The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has a similar instrument and has already done this in real life.) Springmann's best bet was to get her second spacecraft, a lander, all the way to Pluto — the second-farthest destination the board (only Pluto's Moon, Charon, is farther). But Volk, who controlled one of the lander's science instruments, was able to hijack the spacecraft and land on Pluto herself, scoring more points. Meanwhile, Maleszewski crept back into the game by landing a science instrument–packed rover on Vesta.

With Volk focused on Pluto, I took control of the Bennu orbiter and moved it to Vesta, earning points by scanning the protoplanet with radar. By then, Volk, Springmann, and Maleszewski were all nearing the 30-point finish line.

It was time for a planetary Hail Mary. I rushed a rocket to the pad in Japan, added a lander with a seismometer, and launched. There would only be time to get it to Bennu.

Maleszewski topped 30 points by doing a bunch of science on Pluto, triggering the final round. Volk couldn't catch him, and neither could Lovelace. On my turn, I spent all my resources to land my spacecraft and downlink some seismometer data.

According to a discovery card I drew, I discovered mantle dynamics on Bennu, meaning that it had an active core. Later, I asked Lauretta if this was actually possible, considering the asteroid is only 500 meters wide.

"That would be awesome," he said with a laugh. "But no, that would not be something we would expect."

Just seven days after it launched on Kickstarter, Downlink met its $15,000 goal, ensuring the game will become a reality. More than 200 people have backed the game, and Lauretta said stretch goals will fund more commemorative coins and allow him to upgrade some of the game components.

Ultimately, my exciting discovery at Bennu wasn't enough to catch Maleszewski, and Springmann couldn't do it, either.

The final score: Maleszewski 39, Volk 37, Springmann 36, Davis 35, and Lovelace 27.

FEATUREJason Davisfeature4