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Onboard spaceship navigation

Updated: May 16, 2020

Try to find the sextant and telescope on the outside of the command module before reading any further. (NASA)

One of the culminations in the game is grasping the relationship (set) between different constellations of stars, like is it in the Milky Way, on the ecliptic, on the celestial equator or near the polar regions. If we plug the coordinates of the stars and compare it with a landmark on the Earth or on the Moon, we are able to position ourselves towards the right paths in comparison with the current celestial equator and execute the necessary burns. By comparing the ecliptic with the stars, we can take a target position anywhere in the Solar System!

In the game characters and quest teach you about navigation (astrolabe, sextant and octant), celestial markings (armillary spheres) and magnification (telescopes), each portraying their function with utilities in the game. The space navigation endgame needs to be the culmination of instrument and observation knowledge (navigation knowledge NK). To get this one right, the last year was not only spent to enhance graphic design and illustrations, but a great deal of research has been conducted to get a solid background in cultural and historical references to support the theme. Next to that, the mechanics of the endgame have been totally rethought to approach the scientific and technological input while playing.

Play test session on Tabletopia, endgame fragment of AstroNavigators. (Armillary Games)

The player board has a sextant (SXT) and scanner telescope (SCT) where the invested knowledge of the astronomy part of the game can be spent to reach the Moon safely and as fast as possible. During the Onboard Calibration phase, astronauts can spent a lunar phase and a constellation or planet set token to mitigate difficulty values during the different stages and accelerate the journey if a matching set icon appears in the observation zone next turn.

The following images showcase astronaut and first space navigator Jim Lovell in the first ever human voyage towards the Moon with the Apollo 8 mission, followed by midcourse navigational measurement info together with visual and technical details of the onboard instruments.

SCT and SXT openings on the outside of the command module. (Exo Cruiser)

During the Apollo program astronaut training astronomy was included for navigation purposes. In the following image below, a customized star map was made where prominent stars were numbered in order for the astronauts to dial them into the computer to position themselves with the thrusters. Normally the position can be read from the gyroscope, but in an event that the computer was hacked (by the Russians that time) or during gimbal lock (gyroscope failure), analogue sighting was necessary to keep track of your way to the Moon. When gimbal lock occurred, resetting the gimbals with the initial positioning of the stars required astronavigation. Gimbal lock can be prevented and kept an eye on, but did happen when abrupt positioning occurred, like after the explosion of the oxygen tank during Apollo 13, which was also manned by a.o. Jim Lovell. Although Lovell had the misfortune of having never landed on the Moon, he went to the Moon and back twice, while conducting experimental (Apollo 8) and emergency (Apollo 13) sightings. This is why I would consider him as the biggest astronavigator in space ever, and Neil Aquila is more a reference to Lovell, than Armstrong, in this regard. For the first landing and lunar module (LM) "the Eagle", Neil takes the lead.

For more details on onboard sighting and gimbal lock, I want to refer to the excellent and concise explanation of Amy Shira Teitel of Vintage Space at the end of this blog. The website of Exo Cruiser also has an in-depth article about Apollo On-board Guidance History.

Apollo 11 astronauts used this star chart while training for their 1969 lunar landing mission. It shows the locations, names, and code numbers for a select group of stars. The astronauts would key those numbers into their Apollo Guidance Computer while taking readings with a sextant. (Smithsonian Institution)

In the board game AstroNavigators an anachronic mixture of technology and space missions is presented, but the use of angles with stars and landmarks is still the basis of today's star trackers (unmanned missions) or astronavigators (manned missions). That is why at the International Space Station (ISS), like in the image with Alexander Gerst, sextants are again subject to testing for future manned missions to the Moon and beyond. In our game the SXT and SCT are part of the mechanics as you can see, but the gyroscope adds an extra touch to the game. A second set token can be calibrated to increase your chance to keep a steady fast course when pushing your luck or to save certain sets, by spending another one instead.

Prototype player board in Tabletopia. (Armillary Games)

To conclude the blog on Onboard Calibrations, I want to show you how fitting the following NASA images of the Apollo astronauts and of today's ISS astronaut Gerst are to the theme of our board game. In the first picture you see from left to right, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, displaying an octant, the Apollo 13 insignia and an astrolabe. The next picture was taken in the ISS while German astronaut Alexander Gerst was conducting sighting tests with a regular sextant.

So, I hope you enjoyed this article on the background of our endgame mechanism and references to the evolution of astronomical instruments. The next blog will be on the game versions without and with miniatures. Some of you might have spotted 3D sculpts of our characters by Anà Roman. More on that will follow!

Don't forget to check out Amy's videos below...

Bye for now,


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