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Maybe this question sounds snaive to some educated people, but I'm not clear if the Space Shuttle could and was ever used without a crew.

And what was the smallest and the biggest crew size it ever flown?

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    $\begingroup$ Of course. A ship like that could never possibly fly automatically, least of all with 1980s tech. An automated system could never handle something like a 38 mph crosswind and still land within 10’ of the centerline and within 33’ of the touchdown mark. That would be crazy. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 '20 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper I'm pretty sure you're being sarcastic but just in case anyone sees your comment without being familiar with the topic: The Soviet space shuttle flew autonomously without crew. And they stuck the landing too! So the technology in principle existed. (Just not on the Space Shuttle) $\endgroup$ Aug 5 '20 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @user2705196 i figured my disturbingly specific figures would give it away, but what I said is exactly what Buran did. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 '20 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Shuttle had an autoland system. They just didn't use it. space.stackexchange.com/a/39470/6944 $\endgroup$ Aug 6 '20 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeJobs No, the autoland system didn't support many of the manual actions required to land. That's what the Remote Control Orbiter kit mentioned in my answer was for. The autoland system just flew (steered) the vehicle. And all of this was just for entry. The manual actions required for ascent and post insertion were never automated. $\endgroup$ Aug 6 '20 at 12:41
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It always flew crewed.

After the Columbia failure, provision was made to fly a damaged Orbiter uncrewed back to a west coast landing site, leaving the crew on the ISS. This was called the Remote Control Orbiter and it required an In-flight Maintenance kit to be installed after docking at the ISS. It was never used.

The smallest number was two (STS-1, 2, 3, and 4)

The largest number was eight (twice, on STS-61A and on STS-71’s return from Russian space station Mir)

Source

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    $\begingroup$ I've read that former NASA staff say STS-1 was the most dangerous mission in NASA history as there was no way to test the system all-up before manned flight. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Aug 3 '20 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ Wasn't it that the orbiter required humans on board for some trite task like lowering the gear, due to astronauts demanding they aren't made completely redundant by computers? $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Aug 4 '20 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Landing STS was such a complex operation. See youtube.com/watch?v=Jb4prVsXkZU $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '20 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @SF., it was opening the gear doors, not lowering the gear, and it wasn't a "trite" task. Rather, opening the gear doors too soon would be a death sentence, either due to excess drag making it impossible to reach a landing site, or if the doors opened much too soon, a Columbia-like breakup. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 4 '20 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark there was plenty of telemetry to allow the computer do it autonomously in a safe manner, and a slew of far more dangerous and critical tasks it did. Comparing the complexity of decision of opening the bay door, to complexity of gliding the zig-zag pattern to the runway, it's absolutely trite. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Aug 5 '20 at 8:10
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The Space Shuttle was America's only crewed spacecraft to fly crewed from the very first flight. Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen flew an historic and heroic flight. They were accommodated with ejection seats although over most of even the early flight profile would likely have been at mortal risk ejecting from the vehicle. I had the pleasure in 1981 of Bob Crippen's company over lunch and he confided that once the countdown passed the final possible abort time (at T-31 seconds), his heart rate jumped instantly (in a heartbeat so to say) from 60 BPM to over 120.

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  • $\begingroup$ T-31, but cool story. space.com/… Several things could, and did, stop the count after that. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '20 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ The barrier at T-31 sec (thanks for the correction) was the final check of the three redundant flight computers. If each agreed at this point the countdown proceeded to flight but the failure of individual systems, as now, would have been cause for termination. Of course, once the solids were lit, after the liquid fuelled engines had stabilised, nothing could stop the launch. $\endgroup$
    – David H.
    Aug 4 '20 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ There were four redundant flight computers plus a fifth backup. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '20 at 16:41
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I think this question sounds strange to many, but I'm not clear if the Space Shuttle could and was ever used without a Crew.

That depends on your definition of "used", I guess. Several Orbiters are currently "used" as museum exhibits without any (flight) crew.

And what was the smallest and the biggest crew size it ever flown?

That depends on your definition of "flown". During ferry flights on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, there was no crew on board the Orbiter. It also depends on your definition of "crew", because there was a flight crew on the SCA for those flights.

It was, however, not capable of autonomous operation. For that, it always needed a crew. (In particular, it had to be landed by a human pilot.)

This is in contrast to the Soviet Buran, which was capable of autonomous operation, and in fact had its only flight without any crew, and also the unofficial successor to the Shuttle, the Boeing X-37, which doesn't even have the possibility of carrying a crew.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a cute answer, but its fairly clear from the question that "used" means "to be launched, orbit in space, and returned to the ground" The last two paragraphs are where your useful answer is. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Aug 4 '20 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ pointing out problems in the question should be done in the comments $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Aug 4 '20 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, this author needs to kill some of their work, hard though that may be. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 '20 at 2:29

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