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Chris Bergin over on NASASpaceFlight.com reports that the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle could lose at least some of its ability to operate without astronauts on board. Although it is still expected that the lunar version of Orion will still be able to orbit the moon untended while it’s crew descend to the surface, it is likely that at least one astronaut will be required to bring the capsule back to Earth from space.

The loss of any unmanned capability is worrying. As David Mindell, a professor of the history of manufacturing and engineering, and the director of MIT’s Space Policy and Society Research Group, recently pointed out in an article in IEEE Spectrum, NASA’s unwillingness to equip the space shuttle with a unmanned flight capability meant that the flight-testing of fixes meant to stop lethal chunks of foam falling off the external tank had to be performed with a human crew onboard.

Indeed, NASA has long allowed the reluctance of pilot astronauts to be seen as mere passangers to guide decisions about unmanned flight capabilities. It’s not surprising that when the Europeans constructed their robot ATV ISS supply ship, they turned to the Russians to supply vital rendezvous and docking technology – after all the Russians have been flying unmanned supply ships to space stations since 1978.

Making it a priority for the CEV to have the ability to fly every mission stage unmanned would give NASA the chance to catch up on a important technology – and could also give the agency an essential degree of flexibility in tackling future unknowns and emergencies.

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