Is the US Space Shuttle capable of a fully automated flight?


They are considering doing a “test flight” before the Shuttle goes back to fully operational status. According to the article, the first few flights of Columbia were “test flights” with only 2 aboard.

Is the pilot and Commander actually necessary? Could the shuttle be flown either remotely or autonomously?

I seem to recall that Burans only flight was totally automated. Could the US shuttle do the same thing?

Ummm, only if there wasn’t any deviations in the operational parameters and no accidecents, logic errors, sensor failure, etc. There is a high degree of automation onboard, like the landing sequence, but it’s still better to have someone on board who can fix the mistakes.

The great thing about humans is the ability to improvise and adapt to changing conditions. Oh, we also need become to repair crap too. I suppose you could have a telepresence onboard, but no one has produced a lightweight, reliable robot necessary for the wide range of tasks required.

Let me ammend that, I thought your were talking about replacing the whole crew.

Yes, there is the Predator spy drones that can fly remotely, but it costs less than 1 million bucks, compared to the much more expensive and irreplacable shuttles.

Just a note: The Buran’s only flight was indeed autonomous, and it returned safely.

However, a U.S. shuttle and a Russian shuttle are not carbon copies. The Buran was likely designed from it’s conception to be capable of fully automated flight, while the American shuttles may not have been.

They’re not, and I seriously doubt the capability has been added to them in any of their upgrades. IAC, an unmanned flight would be bad for NASA as far as the shuttle goes. It will send the message that NASA doesn’t trust it’s own hardware. Of course, a manned flight that ends in death will be just as bad. What NASA needs to do is a “full up” mission like Apollo 14 was. One that shows not only can they recover from their mistakes, but excell as well. How likely that is to happen is another story.

Apollo missions 2-6 were unmaned. How was that accomplished? It seems that the Space Shuttle would be more advanced than the Saturn rockets.

The Shuttle lands on a runway. It’s far more difficult than simply opening a parachute and splashing into the ocean.

I’m not sure if the Shuttles are equipped with an automated landing system, but NASA definitely has the technology to accomplish it. But as Tuckerfan pointed out, it wouldn’t be in their best interest to do so. NASA wants to emphasize the importance of sending humans into space rather than automated unmanned machines. If they demonstrate that the Shuttle is capable of flying by automatic control, there will be even more criticism about the high cost of manned missions vs. unmanned.

The unmanned Apollo’s were basically controlled from the ground. However, they were a lot less complicated than the shuttle is. They were basically, big, dumb rockets with humans strapped along for the ride. The shuttle’s the most complex machine ever built. No doubt NASA could remotely operate 'em, but they’re not going to. Buran was launched unmanned because the Soviets didn’t trust it to keep humans alive.

From the Buran link. Bolding mine.

I think Ranchoth hit the nail on the head.

The Shuttle is not designed to fly and land autonomously - to do so would have jeapordized the astronaut program ("…if it can fly itself, why is there a crew?") and would have cost even more money than the shuttle program already did. The Soviets, however, designed Buran to need no input from a flight crew.

From the January, 2003 issue of Air and Space Smithsonian magazine:

“No Soviet space vehicle had ever been allowed to fly with people until it had conducted two successful orbital demonstration flights. The Buran program was simply complying with a rule going back to Korolev’s days. Faced with the same dilemma, NASA had waived its own safety rule, and on the first shuttle mission, John Young and Robert Crippen rode an untested rocket. To this day, they are the only astronauts to do that.”

Buran apparently made a good landing on its runway, but according to the article quoted above, nearly collided with a MiG-25 chase plane when the computer made an unorthodox approach in a cross-wind that the human pilots in the program would’ve handled differently.

I have been told that all the atronauts needs to to to land the shuttle is press two buttons: one to select the landing site, and another to lower the landing gear just before touchdown. Provided nothing goes wrong, the on-board computers do everything else. Takeoff is also supposed to be pretty automated too, again provided nothing goes wrong. Does anyone have any cites to show this is not the case?

Of course, the main tasks a shuttle does while in orbit - science missions and station assembly - require people on site.