The idea behind the new landing system, tested in the 550 foot fall Vehicle Assembly Building at the space agency's Kennedy Space Center, is to replace parachutes with spinning blades to enable soft and controlled landings on land instead of the ocean.
The rotor re-entry and landing system is designed for capsule-inspired spacecraft like the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle that should fly before the end of the decade, the Discovery News reported.
The landing system's process is called auto-rotation and while it's been proven on helicopters it's never been tried on spacecraft.
Currently, getting the blades deployed the right way is the challenge facing engineers. There are bombs whose fins flick open at high speed and engineers think a similar mechanism could deploy the blades and start them spinning almost immediately.
Control fins on the side of the capsule would keep it from revolving with the blades, the report said.
Engineers are testing ways to get the rotors to start spinning with drop tests in the VAB. With the scale model capsule suspended 480 feet above the floor, engineers can use a helicopter radio-control unit to remotely change the rotors' pitch and slow the capsule's fall.
Rotors could help recover spent rocket stages as well as spacecraft.
The idea is to have rotors built into the booster frame and unfurled as the stage descends to Earth, the empty rocket just as controllable as a spacecraft for a soft landing.
Future rotor re-entry test will get more complicated, eventually involving full-scale models dropped from high-altitude balloons.