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The Big Picture
NASA has studied how to land spacecraft on planetary bodies since the 1950s -- and as engineers know it's not easy. The first atmospheric entry tests used ballistic missiles that featured long nosecones with narrow tips. That shape cut through the air easily -- but high speeds and low drag led to overheating and the melting of the rockets' surfaces.

Mercury capsule model in the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel, January 1959. Credit: NASA

So NASA researchers began testing blunt-nose reentry vehicles. They found that a blunt body with its greater drag transferred far less heat to the spacecraft than the traditional shapes did. That's why the first astronauts flew in space capsules, such as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

Blunt body designs work well with an atmosphere -- but how do they perform some place, such as Mars, where there's very little atmosphere and little drag to slow a spacecraft to a safe landing?

Past Mars missions traveling at speeds as high as 17,000 miles an hour (27,359 kilometers per hour) have used technologies such as parachutes, retro rockets, and even air bags to help spacecraft touch down.

But engineers and scientists, led by a team at NASA's Langley Research Center, have what they think is an even more versatile idea -- a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator or HIAD. The inflatable spacecraft technology looks like a giant cone of inner tubes assembled sort of like a child's stacking ring toy. A HIAD may some day help cargo, or even people, land on another planet or return to Earth -- any destination with an atmosphere.

Inflatable technology could give NASA more options for future planetary missions, because it would allow spacecraft to carry larger, heavier scientific instruments and other tools for exploration. The technology could also be used to return payloads to Earth from the International Space Station or other low Earth orbit locations.

Why would an inflatable heat shield make a difference? It offers reduced weight and increased size, both crucial in space travel.

HIAD - changing the way we explore other worlds.