Parachute Test Missions

To ensure a complex parachute system for crewed or planetary landers works as planned, the parachutes are tested. These tests are often part of the mission, but for some missions, a dedicated parachute mission is set up. This page discusses these dedicated parachute test missions. This page also discusses missions that are flown to demonstrate the atmospheric entry ability of a mission. 


Operator: USAF

Mission: First US space flight and recoveries

Flight: 1949-1950

Status: Completed

Testing for: -

The American space program got a kick-start from using the V-2 rockets taken after World War II. These rockets and the V-2 rockets build by the US after the war were tested at the white sands testing ground [67]. Part of the launches at the White Sands testing ground was under project Blossom. Project Blossom was a project to measure and test various parameters in flight and deploy a canister that was recovered through a parachute system. Onboard of the five flights that were flown on four rhesus monkeys were placed, and on the last flight, a mouse was placed all with medical equipment to check how animals would behave when it would become weightless [65].

The canister would be ejected from the tip of the V-2 where previously the warhead would be located. For the first flight, the canister had a size of 0.56 m^3. In subsequent flights, the canister was increased to 2.27-2.83 m^3 after the first flight by extending the nosecone[65,66]. The canister was limited in weight for all five flights to 907 kg. The canister was recovered using a two-stage parachute system. First, at apogee, a 2.44 m diameter ribbon parachute was deployed to limit the speed of the canister as it descended. After 165 seconds after deployment of the drogue, the 14ft main ribbon parachute is deployed [65,67].

None of the five flights was successfully recovered. The third flight failed because of the launcher exploding. All the other four flights had a successful flight and separation, but none were successful when it came to the recovery part of the flight [64,65].

Photo of a Blossom V-2 shows the special nose cone that was added to provide more space for atmospheric research instruments.

Planetary Entry Parachute Program (PEPP)

Operator: NASA

Mission: Flight test parachutes at high altitudes and supersonic conditions 

Flight: 1966, Multiple flights

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Voyager Mars Lander, later Viking  

A mission flown in the sixties by NASA that still provides data for parachutes today is the PEPP or the Planetary Entry Parachute Program. Two vehicles were used for this program: a rocket vehicle and a balloon/rocket vehicle. For the second vehicle, a  balloon was released. When the balloon reached the highest point, a rocket engine was fired. This rocket engine ensured the test subject reached the desired Mach number, where the balloon ensured a dynamic pressure comparable to that of Mars. The mission tested cross parachutes, disk gap band parachutes, Ringsail parachutes, and Ballutes to test these designs for Mars missions, primarily the Viking landers.

The unique mission architecture meant that the missions were quite expensive but necessary. Due to the high cost, these type of complicated missions has not been re-flown since. This resulted in pretty much every Mars mission relying, in part, on the PEPP results. Some later flights were performed under the Supersonic Planetary Entry Decelerator program or SPED. These objectives were, however quite similar to those of PEPP.

Note notable example was a single parachute flight test under the SPED-II program. With the exception of a single PEPP flight, all tests were done with slender forebodies. SPED-II tested the parachute using a blunt body, more like a Mars lander [19]. 

PEPP in flight

Supersonic High Altitude Parachute Experiments (SHAPE)

Operator: NASA

Mission: Flight test parachutes at high altitudes and supersonic conditions

Flight: 1968, 2 flights

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Viking Mars Lander

The Supersonic High-Altitude Parachute Experiment (SHAPE) was the successor of the PEPP and had very similar goals: testing parachutes at high altitudes and high velocities. SHAPE pushed the envelope of the parachutes by going higher and faster than PEPP, up to Mach 3 and 60 km altitude. Therefore, all test articles had to be launched with a three-stage rocket, an Honest John-Nike-Nike configuration, similar to some of the PEPP missions.

Three 12.2-meter diameter parachutes were tested during the SHAPE program: a disc-gap-band and ringsail type parachute. These tests provided NASA with more knowledge and understanding of the behaviour of these parachutes in high velocity, low density environments. [3,4]

SHAPE pre-flight

Balloon Launched Decelerator Program

Operator: NASA

Mission: Qualification of the Viking accelerator system at simulated Mars Entry Conditions

Flight: 1972

Status: Completed

Testing for: Viking lander

The Balloon Launched Decelerator Test (BLDT) program had the objective to flight qualify the 16.1-meter diameter disk-gap-band (DGB) parachute for the first US Mars lander, called Viking. The parachute was qualified by flight testing it behind the turbulent wake of the BLDT vehicle at conditions representative to a Martian mission. The choice of using a DGB for the Viking Mars mission was based on the results of the PEPP program in the mid-'60s, where DGB, ringsail, ballute and cross parachutes were tested at supersonic conditions [74][75].

A total of four different test flights (AV-1 to AV-4) took place at the White Sands missile base (US) during the summer of 1972: one subsonic drop test, a transonic flight and two supersonic flights. The vehicle is a blunt cone with a 140° angle and a diameter of 3.5 meters. The flight profile of the super- and transonic flights was very similar to that of the balloon launched PEPP flights. A large high-altitude balloon would carry the test vehicle up to about 37 km high. Then, after the balloon was released, a set of solid rocket motors ignited and boosted the vehicle higher up in the atmosphere and up to the supersonic conditions. During the ascent phase, the parachute is deployed by a mortar. After the release of the aerodynamic shell, the test vehicle and parachute land, followed by the retrieval operations. [74][75]

Flight AV-1 of the BLDT program encountered a large rip in the parachute’s dacron canopy. On the video footage, it was clear that the initial failure occurred during the deployment of the parachute from its bag. A high amount of friction between the bag and parachute during deployment was identified as the cause of the initial canopy damage. A large amount of friction was a consequence of a large angle of attack (13°) and excessive dynamic pressure at deployment, which caused an asymmetrical inflation of the parachute from its bag. Regardless of the canopy damage, the parachute managed to perform within the acceptable range of a similar Mars mission [76].

Disk gap band parachute of BLDT [76]


Operator: USAF

Mission: Advance the knowledge of parachutes

Flight: 1965

Status: Completed

Testing for: -

ADDPEP was a program in the 1960s that looked at developing deployable deceleration systems for the initial deceleration and stabilisation of vehicles. These systems had to be capable of being deployed in supersonic conditions where conventional parachutes are not suitable due to aerodynamic heating and complex aerodynamic interaction effects. Three main types of decelerators were investigated: ballutes, truncated cone type decelerators and ribbon parachutes.


A free-falling vehicle was developed to test these decelerators. This vehicle could either be dropped from B-52 or launched on top of a Nike-Nike or Honest John-Nike booster. Once the free-flying vehicle was jettisoned it would accelerate reaching roughly Mach 2 at the start of the test. The test parachute would then be deployed supersonically and observed using cameras placed in the vehicle. In addition to visual observations loadcells and inertial measurement units were placed in order to measure the parachute loads and resultant vehicle deceleration. Once the test was completed the test parachute was jettisoned and a main parachute deployed to allow for the safe recovery of the vehicle. A number of different deployment conditions were tested for each decelerator by varying the deployment time and therefore the deployment Mach number and altitude.[68]


Operator: ESA, Vorticity

Mission: Flight test parachute at supersonic velocities for ExoMars

Flight: 07-04-2017

Status: Succesful

Testing for: ExoMars

SuperMax was a mission flown onboard the Maxus-9 sounding rocket, the last of the giant European Maxus sounding rockets. The mission was launched with the objective of testing a disk gap band parachute at supersonic velocities for the planned ExoMars rover. The SUPERMAX test vehicle was the first piggy-back payload flown aboard a sounding rocket with the aim of performing a flight test of a supersonic parachute. The system was built by Vorticity and was flown by SSC with the support of ESA.  A test flight was conducted instead of wind tunnel testing due to the high cost of supersonic wind tunnels. As the flight was done onboard a sounding rocket, there was limited space, and thus the capsule was quite small. The parachute was only 1.25 meters in diameter and flew 3.045 meters behind the capsule. The small capsule was only 13.8 kg and placed in the space between the rocket motor and the rest of the experiments and was released when the two separated. SuperMax reached an apogee of 713 km and a max heat load of 1.3 MW/m2. The capsule was aerodynamically stable and oriented itself in a heat shield down position automatically. 

SuperMax attached to MAXUS

Disk-Gap Band inflated

During the fight, the parachute inflated at Mach 1.7 and dynamic pressure of 11.5 kPa. These conditions lead to an inflation load of 12 kN on the vehicle. The entire inflation lasted for only 0.014 seconds. The experiment showed that the inflation loads of the disk gap band at supersonic conditions were much higher than expected. The parachute triggering was done using a timer system that deployed the capsule at a certain moment after separation. 


Operator: DARE

Mission: Flight test drogue parachute at supersonic velocities

Flight: TBD

Status: Completed

Testing for: Stratos III and Stratos IV

SPEAR mission patch

A parachute test mission not flown by an aerospace agency, but by a student team is the Supersonic Parachute Experiment Aboard REXUS (SPEAR). The mission has been created and is operated by Delft Aerospace Rocket Engineering, known for their Stratos sounding rocket family. The mission is set to fly onboard REXUS 28, part of the REXUS/BEXUS program organised by SNSA, DLR, ESA, SSC, and ZARM. The mission is centred around the same drogue parachute flown onboard Stratos III and Stratos IV and was set to fly in March 2020 in Sweden. The drogue parachute, a 0.2 m2 Hemisflo ribbon parachute made out of aramid, is identical to the drogue parachute flown onboard Stratos III and will fly onboard Stratos IV. The mission uses a cluster of two Disk-Gap-Band main parachutes for a safe landing. An interesting fact is that the capsule is not stable and requires a stabilising drag cone to be deployed during atmospheric re-entry. The mission was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Render of the SPEAR vehicle


Operator: NASA

Mission: Flight test innovative EDL systems for Mars

Flight: Two flights, last one in September 2015

Status: Succesful

Testing for:  future Mars missions

The Low-density Supersonic Decelerator was a flight testing an inflatable heat shield and a new type of parachute. The capsule consisted of a 6 and 8-meter SIAD or Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator. The capsule was lifted using a high altitude balloon where the vehicle would be spun up, a Star 48 solid rocket motor would accelerate the vehicle to almost Mach 5 and the vehicle would spin down. Then the heat shield was inflated and the vehicle would decelerate. After some time a mortar system fired a ballute pilot chute which would pull out a 100-foot (30.5m) disk sail parachute. The ballute was chosen as the central location of LDSD was taken up by the Star 48 motor and firing a 100-foot parachute from an off-set mortar was a risk to the vehicle. The SIAD worked as expected but during both flights, the main parachute ruptured. After the first flight, a research committee was set up to analyse the incident. They performed several rocket sled tests to validate the performance at high dynamic pressure, but at subsonic velocities. With confidence, the second mission was launched, but the parachute ruptured again. These flights showed a lack of understanding in supersonic parachute inflation which lead to the ASPIRE program. 

LDSD vehicle showing 6 and 8 meter configuration and 30.5m parachute


Operator: NASA

Mission: Flight test Mars2020 parachutes

Flight: Three flights, last one in September 2018

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Mars2020, Perseverance rover

During the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program, a Supersonic inflatable heat shield was tested. The mission ended with the inflation of a 30.5-meter Disk Sail parachute. The parachute was torn under the dynamic pressure, although this did not affect the LDSD mission, it exposed a potential problem for future Mars missions as it was thought the inflation models underestimated the loads. This resulted in the creation of the Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE).

These missions flew on a Black Brand IX sounding rocket. The 6.6-meter long payload module weight about 1200 kg and housed the 80kg Mars 2020 parachute. The rocket flew to about 30-50 km, where the payload module separated from the booster and the parachute could be shot out. The parachute deployment was done using a mortar system, similar to the way it was done on Mars2020.

Three missions were flown, and all three were successful. the first mission tested a 1-on-1 replica of the MSL parachute as a reference. The second and third missions flew the Mars2020 prototype parachutes. The missions helped make the NASA entry simulation programs more accurate and validate the supersonic behaviour of the large parachutes. The mission resulted in a higher reliability for landing the Perseverance rover. Some of these deployments were the fastest ever observed for a parachute this size.  The inflation times were 0.506, 0.456, and 0.410 seconds respectively. 


Operator: NASA

Mission: Flight test Mars Sample REturn parachutes


Status: Planned 

Testing for: MSL

Following the Mars2020 mission including the Perseverance rover, a Mars Sample Return mission is planned. This complex mission includes several launces and landings on both Mars and Earth. For the Mars landings, a new parachute is needed. The goal of ASPIRE2 is to flight test this new, larger parachute. The two main objectives are

1. Conduct at least one successful test of the SLR parachute at an inflation load of 20 to 40% over the stated Flight Limit Load

2. Conduct at least one successful deployment of the SRL parachute at a Mach number greater or equal to the nominal Mars flight. 

The ASPIRE2 flights are expected to fly on a Terrier-Oriol sounding rocket carrying about 1500kg as a payload. The flight path is comparable to the original ASPIRE program with an apogee expected at 52 to 66 km and inflation speeds around 950 Pa and Mach 2.2. [177]

Tianying 6

Operator: CNSA

Mission: Flight test Tianwen-1 parachutes

Flight: One (?) in September 2018. Some sources indicate multiple flights

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Tianwen-1

On the second of September 2018, a  rather large sounding rocket was launched from the Korla Interspetor Test Site in China. The rocket with a diameter of 75 cm and a length of 10 m launched to an altitude between 44 and 54 km. After apogee or around apogee, the rocket separated between the payload section and the rocket motor. The payload section then deployed the main parachute for Tianwen-1, the later Chinese mars lander. 

The mission quite resembles the NASA ASPIRE missions and served a similar purpose. Several sources do indicate that the flight was repeated four times validating the supersonic performance of the main parachute. [98]

The Tianying-6 sounding rocket showing the motor (right) and the payload section (left). In the payload section one can see the packed parachute as well as the fins for stabilisation. 

Crew Module Atmospheric Re-Entry Experiment (CARE)

Operator: ISRO

Mission: EDL test fight for Gaganyaan

Flight: December 2014

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Gaganyaan

The CARE mission was part of India’s crewed capsule development program. In contrast to its predecessor, SRE (Space capsule Recovery Experiment), the CARE capsule resembles the shape of the Gaganyaan capsule in which one day three Indian astronauts will fly to space. The goal of the mission was to demonstrate ISRO’s capabilities of a safe re-entry and recovery of future crewed missions to space and to validate the Gaganyaan parachute recovery system in flight.

The capsule was launched on top of the GSLV-III launch vehicle from the Satish Dhawan launch complex on a sub-orbital trajectory. After re-entry, the apex cover was ejected, followed by the deployment of two pilot chutes. These on their turn deployed the drogue chutes that slowed down the capsule to 50 m/s. At 5 km altitude, two main parachutes are deployed to guarantee a safe splashdown into the Bay of Bengal. Each parachute stage consists of two identical chutes for redundancy to allow for a safe landing in case of a parachute failure.

The flight was a success and marked a great step for India’s development of its crewed space program. Other missions such as the SRE vehicles and pad abort tests have, together with CARE, contributed greatly towards the technology readiness of Gaganyaan. [60,61]

CARE post landing


Operator: NASA

Mission: test precision parachute landing using a parafoil

Flight: 1992-1996

Status: Successful

Testing for: X-38 (and general precision landing)

Similar to a proposed concept for the Gemini capsule from the 60s, the Spacewedge vehicle had the goal to perform a precision landing using a lift-generating parachute. The Spacewedge was a vehicle that flew under the Spacecraft Autoland Project, which ran from 1992 to 1996. This project consisted of three phases to further the technology required to perform a precision landing for manned and unmanned spacecraft. In each phase, a new aspect was tested.

Before phase 1 started, testing on a smaller test vehicle was performed to evaluate the test vehicle's flight characteristics. In phase 1, the manual control system and the autonomous landing system was tested over 36 flights. Following this, in phase 2, the new guidance, control, and instrumentation system were tested and used a smaller parachute to be more representative of an actual space mission. Phase 3 was used to evaluate the precision-guided system. This was done to use it for US army cargo drops.

The Spacewedge vehicle was, as the name suggests, a wedge-shaped vehicle with a flat bottom. The vehicle is 120cm in length, 56 cm in height, and an 81 cm span and, during the various missions, weighed between 58 kg and 83 kg [9].

The parafoil used during phase 1 was a commercially bought parachute which is also used for amateur sky-diving. The parachute itself was unmodified. However, the control lines were increased in length. This parachute had an area of 26.7 m2 [9,10] with an aspect ratio of 2.62 [10]. This parachute was chosen because it already worked in flight to ensure that most of the development effort could be spent on navigation and control instead of developing a new parachute. The size of this parachute also meant that while using this parachute, a flare manoeuvre would not be needed.

During phases 2 & 3, a smaller parafoil was used with an area of 7.2 m2 [9,10]. The reason for using a smaller parachute was done to be more representative of the goal of the project of using it on returning spacecraft.

Spacewedge coming in for landing

The flight profile for each test consisted out of 5 phases. First, using GPS, the vehicle would navigate directly above the landing location. Once it had reached the location, it would start flying in a holding pattern to reduce its altitude. This holding pattern continued until the first decision altitude was reached, which for Spacewedge was 91 m. At the first decision altitude, the landing pattern was started. After reaching the second decision altitude, 46 m – 61 m, the final approach was started. Finally, when 8 m above the ground, the flare manoeuvre would be performed to land the system.

During the four year period of the project, in total, 115 flights were performed by dropping the Spacewedge vehicle from various aircraft. Potential uses for Spacewedge-based technology include deployable, precision, autonomous landing systems, such as the one deployed by the X-38 crew return vehicle, planetary probes, and booster recovery systems. [11]

Spacewedge flight path