The development of a new parachute system is expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive. Therefore, EDL engineers will often base the recovery system’s design on flight-proven hardware of previous missions or even use an exact copy. The decision to use an existing system instead of a newly developed one can follow from a trade-off, where factors such as system mass, cost, development time and risk play a major role.
The brake parachutes or ejection parachutes of high-speed aircraft can also be used for the recovery of space capsules if the operating conditions match. This page gives an overview of the heritage of several parachute systems.
The PEPP (Planetary Entry Parachute Program) missions provided NASA with the knowledge to select and design a parachute system that could decelerate the first US lander on Mars, named Viking. Four different types of parachutes were tested, of which the Disc-Gap-Band (DGB) parachute was selected to go to Mars, based on its performance at the low-density, high-velocity conditions. A full-scale flight qualification of the Viking parachute was performed during the BLDT (Balloon Launched Decelerator Test) program in 1972.
The SHAPE (Supersonic High-Altitude Parachute Experiment) and SPED (Supersonic Planetary Entry Decelerator) projects were a follow-up of the PEPP missions and continued to increase the understanding of supersonic inflation of different parachute types, including Disc-Gap-Bands.
In 1976, the first Viking probe landed successfully on Mars after decelerating under its DGB parachute. All of the US Mars landers thereafter used a similar DGB parachute, based on the success of the Viking-1 DGB.
Disk gap band being tested during PEPP (left) and for Perseverance (Right)
The data gathered during the PEPP, SHAPE and SPED programs is, up until today, still considered extremely valuable and proved essential for the success of many US Mars landers and many other high-speed Disc-Gap-Band parachutes.
As the name implies, the Variable Porosity Conical Ribbon (VPCR) parachute is a modified ribbon parachute. In the 1960s and later, this parachute was used as a brake chute to slow down the infamous SR-71 reconnaissance plane during landing. This VPCR parachute design continued to be used and optimized in future air- and spacecraft missions such as the brake chute for the F-117 spy plane and the space shuttle.
The European IXV re-entry vehicle’s drogue parachute was later based on the VPCR brake chute of the F-117. Later, the space shuttle brake parachute design lay the foundation for the drogue parachute of the Kistler K-1 recovery system, both for the rocket’s first and second stage.
The expertise gained from developing the VPCR brake chutes of the SR-71 and Space Shuttle, likely helped with the design of the drogue chutes for the Orion, Starliner and Dragon capsules.
Furthermore, the VPCR parachute was also used as a brake chute for the F-16 fighter jet and as a drogue for the B-1 ejection system.
The technology required for precision landing using a gliding parachute system was tested in NASA’s Spacewedge program, consisting out of three different phases. The project served as a technology demonstrator that would later be used for example during the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, that used the world largest parafoil (at that time) to land the vehicle.
Ejection seats of supersonic aircraft have been used in several capsule recovery designs because of their large resemblance regarding the operating conditions. For example, the first main parachute of the IXV re-entry vehicle is based on the ejection parachute of the F-111 aircraft.
The ejection system of an aircraft can also be used as an ejection system for a re-entry capsule, instead of being used as a drogue or main parachute. This was the case for the Buran missions, where the cosmonauts could be ejected from the spaceplane in case of an emergency. The ejection system was based on that of the MiG-25 supersonic aircraft.
The Energia rocket used a set of four boosters that would detach from the rocket during ascent. In order to reuse these boosters, a parachute recovery system was chosen. The design featured a cluster of four enormous 48 meter diameter parachutes. Although this system never flew on board of the Energia, it was adopted for the recovery of ESA’s Ariane 5 solid rocket boosters. This design transfer allowed for cost and time savings and was possible due to the similar mass of the Ariane 5 booster to that of the Energia.
Later during the development of the Ariane 5 rocket, the mass of the boosters increased. This meant that the parachute system of the Energia wouldn’t sufficiently slow down the booster. Instead of going through the entire development of a new parachute system, a more cost-effective solution was used: a copy of the drogue parachute was placed underneath the main parachute. Although these two parachutes were likely heavier than a single-parachute-system, the large amount of time and cost associated with the development of a new system was avoided.