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The Wikipedia article on STS-1 (the first orbital space shuttle mission), in a discussion of all the problems and malfunctions occurring during the mission, mentions that, due to an unexpected shockwave during booster ignition, Columbia’s rear bodyflap (part of its pitch control system) was (unbeknownst at the time to either Mission Control or the crew) bent upwards beyond the point where damage to the shuttle’s hydraulic systems would have been expected.

According to the article, had Columbia’s hydraulic lines actually been breached, resulting in a total loss of hydraulic fluid, this would have rendered the shuttle uncontrollable as soon as the aerodynamic forces on the orbiter during reentry exceeded the control authority of its reaction-control system.

Small- to medium-sized aircraft with hydraulically-actuated flight controls essentially always have some form of manual reversion capability in case a no-hydraulics situation occurs, where the primary flight control surfaces (always the elevator and ailerons, and sometimes the rudder as well) are operated manually by the pilots, usually by control cables attached to the pilots’ yokes and pulling (depending on the aircraft) either on the control surfaces directly or on servo tabs which then generate aerodynamic forces which move the control surfaces. (Large aircraft generally don’t, even though even partial control authority would still be better than nothing, but that’s another question.)

To the best of my knowledge, the largest Western aircraft to have flight controls with manual-reversion capability is the Boeing 737 MAX,1 which has provisions for full manual control of the ailerons and elevator, plus a small amount of undocumented manual rudder control (as the rudder is rarely or never used during normal flight, manual rudder control is far less critical to have than manual elevator and aileron control, and using a manual aileron-and-elevator system rather than a manual three-axis system allows for a simpler system; however, due to the design of the 737’s rudder system, the rudder can nevertheless be manually moved slightly by a sufficiently large amount of force on the rudder pedals). The 737 MAX is considerably larger than a shuttle orbiter, with a maximum weight of 88,300 kg, as compared to the shuttle’s empty weight (as its flight control capability, or lack thereof, would only be relevant during descent, when it would generally be empty, and, therefore, at its lightest) of 68,600 kg; even with the shuttle orbiter at its maximum allowable weight (to allow for the possibility of a hydraulic failure during an abort scenario while carrying the absolute heaviest possible payload) of 109,000 kg, it would be less than a quarter again the size of a 737 MAX 9, which would seem to indicate that including manual-reversion capability for the shuttle’s flight controls would have been doable.

Why, therefore, wasn’t it included?


1 The Ilyushin Il-62 is almost twice as heavy as the 737 MAX 8, with an MTOW of 165,000 kg, and has a fully mechanical flight control system (no hydraulics even in normal operation); however, it was a Soviet aircraft, making it somewhat unlikely that the space shuttle design teams could have gotten access to its technical data (especially given the heavy involvement of the U.S. Air Force in the design and development of the shuttle - for instance, the shuttle would have had much smaller wings were it not for the design requirement to launch into a polar orbit to either deploy a U.S. spy satellite or kidnap a Soviet one, and then reenter and land after just one orbit, with the consequent large crossrange requirements).

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    $\begingroup$ I suggest this gets moved to SpaceExploration.SE, there are people with vast knowledge on the Space Shuttle program there and you're much more likely to get a definitive answer. $\endgroup$ – GdD Nov 15 '18 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @GdD: I realise that, but this question is about the space shuttle's flight control system, which falls under the remit of Aviation.SE rather than SpaceExploration.SE. $\endgroup$ – Sean Nov 16 '18 at 3:52
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    $\begingroup$ I see where you're going, but I definitely think you'll get more definitive answers there @Sean. The case you've brought up has been discussed more than once. $\endgroup$ – GdD Nov 16 '18 at 8:03
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The biggest reason (as is typically the case with space craft) was likely weight. It costs quite a bit of money to get even small amounts of mass into space, when talking about a vehicle keeping it light while maintaining a basic level of safety is key.

Unlike the 737 the shuttle lacked the yoke style controls that would be required for this kind of a system. The shuttle stick not only operated the flight control surfaces while on approach but also drove the reaction control system while in space. So there would be no way to operate a manual backup system even if there was one (without changing all the control surfaces).

The orbiter also had a triple redundant hydraulic system which was considered fail safe enough, and due to the highly automated flying of the orbiter hydraulic systems proved to be what was needed to make the system a reality. Cable controls for manual reversion in a flight regime barely flyable by humans would have largely been dead weight.

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  • $\begingroup$ ...why wouldn't one be able to use a joystick with a manual-reversion system? $\endgroup$ – Sean Nov 17 '18 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Sean you could if it was like the ones on say a P-51 but the shuttle system was different and had to control both the controls surfaces and the reaction rockets, the later of which cant really be driven mechanically. $\endgroup$ – Dave Nov 17 '18 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but the question's about manual reversion as a backup in the event of a total hydraulic failure; unless the RCS thrusters were hydraulically-actuated, their being controlled by the same joystick as the flight control surfaces isn't really relevant. $\endgroup$ – Sean Nov 17 '18 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Sean while not directly related it was a design constraint to save weight and simplify operations in the orbiter. Sure you could have a cable based system but as noted above with triple redundant hydraulics any more would have been dead weight. If you listen to the above linked podcast they also cover the fact that the shuttles redundancies were largely to keep up appearances for the the public and most of the astronauts knew that a critical failure of any main system was not going to end well. $\endgroup$ – Dave Nov 17 '18 at 4:45
  • $\begingroup$ "barely flyable by humans" +1. Outside of testing, did a human ever fly an STS? $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 5 at 0:49

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