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Has anyone ever manually flown a spacecraft to orbit, Kerbal Space Program-style?

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    $\begingroup$ This would be a great opportunity for space tourism. Could even lead to a new kind of “astro sports“ movement, with competitions and stuff $\endgroup$ – Everyday Astronaut Jan 14 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ Joe Engel flew significant legs of STS-2's re-entry and landing from orbit. Going the other way from your question, but it's the most striking example I can think of. $\endgroup$ – J... Jan 14 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ It looks like the short answer to this excellent question is: "It was perfectly possible, and the systems existed to do so, but as it turned out it never happened." $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jan 14 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @J... The final phase of all shuttle landings was flown manually. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jan 14 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Yes, the last five minutes on 25-mile final after the shuttle drops to subsonic velocities. Engel started 400,000 feet up at Mach 30. $\endgroup$ – J... Jan 14 at 19:05
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I have never heard of such a thing, at least on the US side. I'm pretty sure it would be legendary had it ever happened. The Apollo astronauts had that option on the Saturn V. Gene Cernan once said:

You almost wish you hadda guidance failure at liftoff. Because I knew I could've flown that big Saturn V into orbit goddamn near as good as the computer.

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    $\begingroup$ what about Matt Damon and Val Kilmer? oh wait... $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 12 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure it's spelled "Kerman"... ;) $\endgroup$ – Alexander Kosubek Jan 14 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ What a great quote ! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jan 14 at 18:29
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I believe manually flying a rocket to Earth orbit from Earth's surface would be impractical for the following reasons:

  1. All current rockets pull massive G forces in the early stages of ascent. It is essential to get up to orbital velocity as quick as possible, because at low speeds you waste propellant fighting gravity. high G forces would make the rocket difficult to control.

  2. Most rockets go into a low earth parking orbit initially, and this barely skims the Earth's atmosphere. Without significant guidance, a pilot would not have the precision to enter such an orbit, so would need to overshoot, putting the spacecraft into a higher (or more likely, elliptical) orbit as this would be a safer option than undershooting and ending up entering the atmosphere and crashing in an undetermined part of the world. Such an orbit would be a waste of propellant. If you are going to provide a guidance system, you may as well link it directly to the engine rather than having an unnecessary step of using the pilot.

Manual orbital rendezvous has been tried, and the first attempt failed due too poor understanding of orbital mechanics https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_rendezvous

More spectacular manual piloting occurred during the Apollo 13 lunar mission includin changing the orbit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_13 . When the service module failed, the astronauts were forced to abandon their descent to the moon's surface and instead use the lunar module as a lifeboat. They executed several burns of the lunar module's engine in order to return to Earth, according to instructions from Mission control and using the earth and celestial bodies out of the window for reference. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20090026451 gives a good overview of what was required. Things to note are:

  1. Although this was an emergency, they had a lot more time to navigate than they would in a liftoff from earth
  2. Mission control deliberated quite a bit on each burn before instructing the astronauts on how to execute it. The accident had occured even before the command/service module reached the moon, but they still needed to consider the target landing zone before the first mid-course correction burn. In between burns they tracked the position of the spacecraft to determine the magnitude and direction of the next burn.
  3. Due to venting of the damaged oxygen tank the astronauts had difficulty identifying stars to use as reference for the burn, but instead used the sun, moon and earth.
  4. Although there was some manual control, the guidance system was used to help with targeting. A wristwatch was used to check the burn duration

This gives an example of what is involved in navigating a spacecraft. Note that they had several very small correction burns to carry out and given that they had several hours between the burns they had (some) time. I do not believe it would be a good idea to carry out such manoeuvres manually in close proximity to the earth, as an incident would be disastrous.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that manual control of the craft does not necessarily imply manual navigation. Scenarios existed on shuttle where the crew would take over manual control but "fly the needles", i.e. follow the guidance & navigation from the onboard computers. Also shuttle did not pull "massive g forces", it was limited by design to 3 g's. (I do see you said "current rockets") $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jan 12 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: That's... pretty much exactly what I was thinking of by "flying manually" - manual control, but automated guidance prompting (like how you fly stuff in KSP). $\endgroup$ – Sean Jan 12 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean as Organic Marble noted, the space shuttle had the ability, but it was never used for ascent as the trajectory was worked out beforehand and it then made sense just to let the computer fly it. It would only make sense in an unforeseen circumstance. I haven't played Kerbal but manual piloting makes perfect sense there as it gives you the opportunity to experiment with changes. The rescue of Apollo 13 was very much flying the needles - they had to set the instruments up manually according to instructions from mission control, then use them to help maintain attitude during the burns. $\endgroup$ – Level River St Jan 12 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ "Barely skims the Earth's surface"? $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Jan 14 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ This really does not make much sense. The pilot would have a good minute or two, to perform, a relatively simple, smooth maneuver. Of course it would be "difficult" but flying a helicopter is very difficult. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jan 14 at 18:31
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Shuttle had the capability to fly manual ascents, and the crew was trained to do it. It never happened in the real world.

This excerpt from the Ascent Checklist shows one of the places where the crew could be directed to take over manual control (CSS = Control Stick Steering) and manual throttle control.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Amazing, this looks just like a printout of a hefty Python program. $\endgroup$ – undercat Jan 13 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ Great information ! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jan 14 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ That's one hell of an if condition... if not stable for 10 seconds give manual control. I wonder how they decided on 10 seconds... Also, I'm glad CSS doesn't mean cascading style sheets or the shuttle would've come down misaligned for sure. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jan 16 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MagicOctopusUrn It actually means if the displayed value of MECO time on the screen is not stable. That's what the "check TMECO" right before it means. A failure to converge on a MECO time in 10 seconds was a primary cue of a GNC problem. (MECO being Main Engine Cut Off) You read these procedures like [take an action] [if there is a problem with the action, perform the steps in the starred block] $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jan 16 at 15:31
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This is not a definitive answer, but let's look at the very first human space flights, Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin in the USSR and Mercury-Redstone 3 with Alan Shepard in the USA.

The Vostok was controlled completely automatic or from ground, since it was feared that Gagarin might pass out or would be otherwise unable to control the spacecraft correctly. The controls were even locked but Gagarin had a code he could have used to unlock them.

Mercury-Redstone 3 had an automatic ascend but Shepard took manual control during the flight to do some experiments. NASA scientists/engineers didn't even want to include manual controls for Mercury but the pilots insisted they be added (and a window) so they can do something if the automation fails (which turned out to be a good idea).

So even for the very first space flights, in a time when the spacecrafts didn't even have a programmable computer, the launch phase was automated.

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    $\begingroup$ That article has about 3,700 words. If you know where the section is that you mean to link to for "a good idea", could you consider pasting a short block quote? Even if it's incomplete, it would at least help readers figure out where in the link the information can be found that you are referring to. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jan 12 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I think the opening teaser is clear enough Final Mercury mission, After 22 orbits, virtually all capsule systems failed. Nevertheless the astronaut was able to manually guide the spacecraft to a pinpoint landing. That said, the article describes the entire mission before finally getting to the incident in question. John Glenn at mission control helps pilot Gordon Cooper time his reentry burn, followed by the single line paragraph "Roger, John. Thank you." Hope that helps. $\endgroup$ – Level River St Jan 12 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ another reason the Soviets didn't like manual control options was the possibility of crews defecting if they had the means. Couldn't very well include a political officer on every crew so having them controlled remotely ensured obedience. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 14 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting: Do you have a source for that? It sounds a lot more like fiction than fact to me: since most (all?) of the early Sovjet cosmonauts were also pilots, they would have had easier/less risky ways of defecting than seizing a spacecraft. $\endgroup$ – DarkDust Jan 14 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ The USA block would likely be much more welcoming to a USSR astronaut that also provided them a soviet spacecraft to study. $\endgroup$ – Ángel Jan 14 at 20:19
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Depending on your definition of orbit, the X-15 Aircraft was flown above the Kármán line to 108km in flight 91. At its Apogee, it had no aerodynamic control and was in a rather elliptical orbit. If you insist on once-around, the other answers are most likely the authoritative ones.

In the X-15 flight 51 Armstrong used the MH-96 was an experimental adaptive controller to fly by hand to 207,500 feet (63km) and bounced off the top of the atmosphere when trying to re-enter.

There is both an automatic and manual flight control for the X-15. I didn't find an absolute reference as to whether flight 91 was piloted in manual mode or not. However, some non-atmospheric X-15 flights clearly were in manual mode.

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    $\begingroup$ The X-15 was not in orbit by any conventional meaning of the term. It reached ~7000 ft/sec, orbit takes ~25,000 ft/sec. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jan 13 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ A highly informative answer, new user! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jan 14 at 18:33

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