Commercial operators like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic may be taking the lead in terms of manned space travel, but NASA continues to explore new ways to travel to and from space. The agency's latest research is focused on what could become a rotor-equipped space capsule re-entry vehicle.
The idea would be to attach rotor blades to top of a returning space capsule, with the blades acting as a slowing and stabilizing mechanism. The process of getting the blades to begin turning during re-entry, known as auto-rotation, is actually an old idea that NASA considered using back in the days of the Apollo space mission. But, because of tight development and testing schedules, NASA decided to scrap the rotor idea and go with the parachute slowing mechanism we're all familiar with today. According to NASA, the rotor idea was never really off the table, particularly because successful implementation of the change would offer the ability to execute controlled, soft landings on very specific targets.
Actually deploying rotor-equipped space capsules is far off, but rigorous testing is currently being conducted at the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, so we could see these rotor-space-crafts sometime in the not-too-distant future.