Is It Possible to Fly A Rocket To Space Without Autopilot?

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Hundreds of missions have flown humans to orbit over the last 60 years, and while every one has had a pilot in command, none of them have actually had the pilot taking manual control of the ascent into orbit. In the early rockets this wasn’t even possible, but the Apollo program and Space shuttle both had a backup capability which allowed limited manual control of the vehicle during the critical launch phase.
However, for suborbital flights there’s over a dozen pilots who flew to space and back without a computer to guide them.

  1. Engin Uzum
  2. Nick Garcia

    I remember hearing something about Neil Armstrong bouncing off the atmosphere in a x15 and barely getting back. Wouldn’t that mean he was in space?

  3. Woodrow Wiest

    By far one of my favorite videos Scott. Thanks.

  4. Wouter d.B.

    Sidenote: The revamped footage of the Saturn rockets is just….jaw dropping.

  5. Ralph Clark

    One’s first thought has to be: What kind of numpty could get lost on the way to space?

    But your vector needs to be just so to place you in the right orbital trajectory, and that takes a bunch of computation.

  6. Thomas Charlton

    Interesting subject, excellent presentation! Thanks Scott.

  7. Auldan McCarthy

    Hey Scott, do you have a video explaining the basics of orbital mechanics? I’ve seen little bits about it in your videos but I would love a foundation of how speed and altitude and attitude relate to each other once in orbit. Thanks.

  8. BirdValiant

    11:50 Man, he really was getting shaken violently.

  9. slydude71

    Me playing ksp watching my trajectory plummet into the planet as I run out of fuel due to poor manual control: ‘They do what now?”

  10. Emperorvalse

    I had to watch this video twice. I got so caught up with the beautiful imagery I was not listening to Scott’s voice!
    Great video again Scott.

  11. hellnawnaw

    The only reason we fly it manually in KSP is that it’s so much easier to get into orbit. If it were similarily difficult as real life, we’d also have mechjeb fly it for us by default.

  12. te0nani

    Me, looking at dash cam footage compilations: “We should leave Spacecrafts to the machines.”

  13. Consent of the Governed

    I sure one could pilot a rocket into space with adequate controls, however, a successful orbital insertion or rendezvous with the moon or another planet? No way!

  14. douglasheld

    9:58 such gorgeous STS shots I’ve never seen before! What is this red glow? It can’t be heating friction from the ascent, can it? With the OMS firing, this has to be an ascent orbital insertion?

  15. MortenErCrazy

    Sure, why not? As long as it has enough gimbals and thrust, anything can happen!

  16. Dr. Benjamin Bird

    The Japanese have a sounding rocket derivative that can get into orbit without a guidance system, I think. Something to do with their post war laws not allowing for ICBM technology.

  17. Rogier Brussee

    “this could rip of the wings of the space shuttle and really ruin the day”

    Scott Manley teaching “mild understatements”.

  18. Sinchan Sinha

    Flipping switches to make the computer happy 😂

  19. Uncle Ned

    Imagine what it must be like to literally feel the air getting thinner as you reach space. When you are flying the old fashioned way, you can feel the air around you through the controls. When you fly by cable, you get to feel the air around you. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you just know what the interaction between the aircraft and air is doing.

  20. Kaminari Uchi

    Do you have a twitch stream where we can watch you play KSP?

  21. Douglas Modesto

    God, I love this angle 6:46

  22. ehon717

    I just wanna know what Scott’s shirt says!

  23. Adub 1300

    Gordon Cooper had to de-orbit manually during his Mercury mission

  24. Joel Holzhausen

    Where did you find all that amazing Saturn V footage? I’ve never seen many of those shots.

  25. Gareth Jones

    You forgot to mention Bob Kerman as one of the greats!

  26. Warwick Morrison

    As a drone pilot, “fly safe” has good meaning. Fascinating footage behind your fascinating dialogue. 😃

  27. elzar760

    Don’t forget that time that Tommy Lee Jones landed the flying brick on manual.

  28. Christopher Cody

    “what kind of emergency situation could possibly benefit from human intervention?” Good question…

  29. jekanyika

    This is why I always use mechjeb to pilot my rockets into space, it feels more realistic.

  30. Andrew Garley

    Excellent Scott, really interesting and educational :)

  31. Stuart Rushton

    ‘If they could make a washing machine fly my Jimmy could land it’ Blanche Lovell= Apollo 13

  32. drac richards

    I really appreciate this video. There’s alot of knowledge in it as well as a feeling of deep seated confidence in the capabilities of mankind even steering our way to space. Thank you for sharing Scott.

  33. Hans Christian Ben

    it is also worth noting that Frederick “CJ” Sturckow is a 4-time Shuttle Astronaut (2 of which as Commander) before he joined Virgin Galactic and flew SS2

  34. Brodymk45

    big scott manley, you are my favorite space explainer youtuber, you have helped my learn so much about space and i would like to say thank you scott. i wish to meet you someday.

  35. Steve the Pirate

    I’m told that the Shuttle abort procedures were largely seen as “something to do while you wait to die”.

  36. Dean Su

    11:51 Holy mother of combustion instability…

  37. Andrew Byrne

    This reminds me of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Pynchon

  38. Helium Road

    In the documentary film “In the Shadow of the Moon” Gene Cernan talked about how he was tempted to go to manual and be the only man to fly a Saturn V by hand. He figured it was the last Apollo mission, anyway, worse that could happen was that he’d get fired after getting back from the moon. But he decided to play it straight and let the machine do its job.

  39. Arnold Sherrill

    A notification from Scott Manley is like your favorite instructor, saying good morning or good afternoon class…. today’s topic is… Shall We Begin

  40. Matthew Jackson

    It always makes me a little sad that Vladimir Komarov isn’t mentioned in the lists of space exploration heroes. I can’t think of any with more courage and compassion, getting into what he knew was a death trap in order to save Gagarin’s life, who would have had to go if he refused.

  41. Matt Chaffe

    “Computers have always done a better job”

    And that’s why want to download Mechjeb so it can do a better job at holding my space craft better than I could with my inputs

  42. Alvaro Oñate

    And what about Gordo Cooper manual re-entry of his Faith-7 Mercury spaceship?

  43. Alex Roge

    “Come-on Houston, give me a joy stick, I can fly this bird!”

  44. J C

    You forgot that Tyrese did steer his car rocket into space and into the evil satellite in in Fast & the furious 9

  45. fosforito1522

    Gene Cernan said he trained to pilot the SV to space in an emergency.

  46. Quite Gone Jim

    Scottish Accent: “Landin’ on tha’ Mun” – Kerbal Space Program must have been written by a Scotsman!

  47. sturfryd

    I could do it. I’m a certified KSP pilot.

  48. Kevin Street

    This is such a cool video! Thank you for making it. Those spaceplane pilots are real fliers, no doubt. It hadn’t occurred to me that they’re the modern inheritors of the X-15, but of course you’re totally right.

  49. Bert Blankenstein

    For those who have not watched it, The Right Stuff comes highly recommended.

  50. MonkeyJedi99

    I have seen a manually controlled landing cycle from orbit performed in a Don Knotts movie, “The Reluctant Astronaut”.
    … That doesn’t really count, does it?

  51. Digital Dan

    Scott, this presentation was “pitched” at just the right level for geeks like us. Very nicely done.

  52. Falcon Heavy

    This is some beautiful footage! ❤️

  53. Tom Jacobs

    just got to the Mun with my 4yr old for the first time, she was in charge of staging. :D
    she likes to drive around in vehicles, mostly “swimming” in the sea.

  54. Neko With A Hat

    thanks, i was gonna launch my rocket to mars but now im rethinking it

  55. Jeff Pudlo

    That Saturn V “cheat code” is one of my favorite tidbits about that rocket. Pretty sure Von Braun would have shot any astronaut who thought about even simulating it, though.

  56. ShamblerDK

    Wow, this video is awesome! You have many, many small video clips of space vehicles, which I’ve never seen before.

  57. Aluminum Oxide

    0:34 I love that quote “the crew have important jobs to do, like flipping switches to keep the computer happy!!” 🖥 😊

  58. jespersaron

    “How Apollo Flew to the Moon” by W. David Woods also mentions the manual first stage control option on page 73:

    “Later in the mission, Conrad laughed about the experience. “The launch was
    almost as good as me getting to fly the Saturn V into orbit.” His was only the second
    Saturn equipped to allow the commander to fly manually to orbit – a contingency
    that, while never called upon, would have been welcomed by the hot-shot
    commanders within the astronaut corps.”

  59. A3BilbaNEO

    I once managed to make a soft splashdown with Starship SN15 in Orbiter from the cockpit, with the camera rotated 90 degrees down. Not sure if the real one will have a control stick.

  60. Dan Smith

    That “pilot to space” aspect of unmodded KSP is really my least favorite thing about the game. Some people love that part, but it breaks the immersion for me.

  61. Paul Hannoever

    Man, the Saturn V really is one beautiful rocket. I am always blown away

  62. JZ's Best Friend

    12:45 When one considers that even very basic computers have always done a better job, then just consider what the singularity will produce.

  63. Mr Picky

    you should also have mentioned human induced oscillation ,reaction times and other stuff

  64. Erzgebirge erleben

    6:00 people can say what ever they want, but those slowmo close-up shots of the satur v are the best peaces of rocket videography out there. I’m not a big fan of the Apollo program, but those videos get never old. Hope Elon will do something similar with super heavy

  65. Penny Lane

    I mean, since reality comes with MechJeb pre-installed, I wouldn’t trust my life to anything biological during ascend either.

  66. Alex Landherr

    Beginner Kerbonauts: “It’s really difficult”.
    Professional Kerbonauts: “It’s still difficult”.

  67. Palindromemordnilap

    …so, in KSP, we’re using a computer, to simulate manually performing tasks, that are actually best left to a computer?

  68. Simon Anthony

    Some fantastic footage I’ve never seen before !

  69. Cotcan

    I see Scott must have been on the KSP subreddit recently.

  70. Tenacious Rodent

    So much legendary footage.

  71. Robert Hill

    KSP may make you confident, but STS never came with a “Revert to Launchpad” button.

  72. bazoo513

    You reacted swiftly to that exchange about piloting 😁

  73. MCornelissen

    Love the ’60s Saturn slomo’s 🥳🥳🥳

  74. Levi-Ellis Müller

    as a German it is funny to see the mascot of my favourite child television series on YouTube in English

  75. Kleiner Prinz

    Put it this way: Can you land on the moon, manually, yes you can : Neil Armstrong did it. Can you dock an out of control Gemini to Agena, manually, yes you can: Neil Armstrong did it, .. do you see where this is going?

  76. Crow_056

    I like how the kerbal in the intro seems to start panicking as the camera moves closer, as if he can see it rapidly approaching his face

  77. John Riney

    The Saturn V guidance turned out to be rather more resilient than expected; Apollo 6 lost two engines in second stage flight, and Skylab had a bunch of pieces fall iff, and both continued on to orbit quite handily. So the need for manual intervention was even less likely.

  78. AwesomeDavid2012

    Idk without SAS I usually just flip before I’m out of the atmosphere.

  79. acceler9

    Wow, that vibration at 11:52 looks brutal! Of course, looked like it didn’t even phase the Spaceship 1 pilot.
    edit: Changed X-15 to SS1 (thanks, JDD!)

  80. flushed emoji official

    from my experience in ksp, yes, yes it is. it just doesn’t end well.

  81. Anonymous Freak

    I still hope Virgin Galactic offers Joe Engle to fly at least one SpaceShipTwo mission. He is currently the only person to have flown two different winged craft to space (X-15 and Space Shuttle;) time to make him the third, and basically guarantee he retains the “most different types of winged spacecraft” crown for the foreseeable future.

  82. Josh Esh

    Hi Scott, was listening in to your twitch stream last night when you were discussing this and the X-15 plane!

  83. Dysputant

    Yet it is.
    Just remember to make a lot of quick saves.

  84. Nick Treadwell

    Love that you mentioned Cernan from the documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon. It’s one of the best Apollo documentaries ever made.

  85. domoredujordan

    4:39 I recognize those monoprop thrusters. =)

  86. Doge Enthusiast

    At that point you’ll just be playing kerbal space program in real life

  87. Strange

    00:40 are you saying that KSP players have more experience in getting rockets to space than astronauts? Got it!

  88. Jude Cundiff

    I’m going to make a Space Plane passenger flight company named SAFE, that way I get free advertisement from Scott Manley at the end of every one of his videos.

    “Fly Safe”

  89. Astoronny P

    As far as I remember, in that Voskhod 2 mission (when Aleksey Leonov first “leonovized” in the outer space) Pavel Belyaev had to perform a manual descent to land due to a malfunction…

  90. Richie Big Biggie™

    Deke Slayton wasn’t going to allow a fully automated shuttle.

  91. Brittany & Michael Knight

    Anyone interested can download the space shuttle crew operations manual and the entry and TAEM manuals and read up on all the contingencies including the RTLS about.

  92. Alex Suykov

    Nice timing, Curious Marc video on Saturn V LVDC internals also came out today.

  93. Ganiscol

    With the infamous words of Captain Zapp Brannigan: Give me a stick and I’ll ride this bad boy to space!

  94. Jan Negrey

    Talk about that one time Abort to Orbit was used on Space Shuttle!

  95. J Shepard

    I’ve also heard interviews with Gene Cernan where he said he was ready to fly Apollo 17 to orbit manually if necessary. He seems to have trained on a procedure to do this.

  96. Morgan Brady

    This is such a great video!

  97. Rockomax

    After a long time manually controlling spacecrafts in KSP, I ended up using MechJeb for the mundane tasks like circularizing orbits and such.

  98. Patrick's Music

    The missile knows where it is- by knowing where it isn’t

  99. travis domeier

    “Hello it’s Scott Manly here.” (Extra deep and Manly voice)

  100. Robert White

    Considering how many Kerbals I have killed I wouldn’t sign up for that flight.

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