NASA explores inflatable spacecraft technology

Devising a way to land astronauts on Mars is a complex problem and NASA scientists think something as simple as a toy design may help solve the problem. Safely landing a large spacecraft is just one of many challenges the agency faces as it eyes an ambitious goal of sending humans into deep space later this century.
At NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, engineers have been working to develop an inflatable heat shield that looks a lot like a super-sized version of a stacking ring of doughnuts that infants play with. The engineers believe a lightweight, inflatable heat shield could be deployed to slow the craft to enter a Martian atmosphere much thinner than Earth’s.
Such an inflatable heat shield could help a spacecraft reach the high-altitude southern plains of Mars and other areas that would otherwise be inaccessible under existing technology. The experts note that rockets alone can’t be used to land a large craft on Mars as can be done on the atmosphereless moon. Parachutes also won’t work for a large spacecraft needed to send humans to Mars, they add.
Hence the inflatable rings. The rings would be filled with nitrogen and covered with a thermal blanket. Once deployed for landing, the rings would sit atop the spacecraft, somewhat resembling a giant mushroom.
"We try to not use propulsion if we don’t have to," said Neil Cheatwood, the senior engineer at Langley for advanced entry, descent and landing systems. "We make use of that atmosphere as much as we can, because it means we don’t have to carry all that fuel with us."