NASA explores inflatable spacecraft technology

Devising a way to one day land astronauts on Mars is a complex problem and NASA scientists think it may be solved with something as simple as a child’s toy design. That’s just one of the many engineering challenges the space agency faces as it ambitiously eyes a goal of sending humans into deep space in coming decades.

At NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, engineers have been working on developing an inflatable heat shield. It looks a lot like a super-sized version of a stacking ring of doughnuts infants play with. Deploying a lightweight, inflatable heat shield would allow for a large spacecraft carrying humans to enter Mars’ very thin atmosphere, helping the craft to slow for landing.

The inflatable rings are filled with nitrogen and covered with a thermal blanket.

NASA plans to put a large-scale experiment into orbit on an Antares rocket launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, in 2016.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal