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Per What were the biggest and heaviest spacecrafts to safely return from orbit?, the biggest and heaviest spacecrafts to safely return from orbit were space shuttles and space planes.

What were the biggest and heaviest objects to safely return from space using a parachute descent?

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Almost certainly the Orion test vehicle launched in 2014. Aside from missions with humans on board, vehicles returning to Earth from space have been small samples, film, dust, etc, all quite small, except for the space plane X-37, but that lands similar to the Space Shuttle. Orion is the largest of the vehicles that will have humans on board.

A previous answer shows the size comparisons, and it is pretty clear Orion is the largest and heaviest of all human landers, at least the part that lands back on Earth.

The Orion version that was launched wasn't a complete version, but still had a mass of about 9300 kg. The Orion that was launched, while certainly the largest to be recovered by payload, is less than the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission, at 9616 kg. I don't have numbers for Starliner, but the total package is 13000 kg, so likely less when landed. The only other spacecraft that might be close are Apollo CSM and Soyuz. Soyuz's total mass when launched is 7150 kg, Apollo's CSM is 5557 kg. So it seems like Crew Dragon is a clear winner.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does this answer address "biggest", "heaviest", or both? Some numbers would be nice too. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ Both. Can put some numbers to it, but... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, I thought that Orion was pretty much a shell. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble This is why I should have checked the numbers... While it is pretty clearly the largest spacecraft to land by parachute, it turns out Crew Dragon was more massive. There were mass simulators inside, but... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ I fully support incorporation of data into answers instead of just making stuff up! +1 $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 23:38
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While it may not be a literal answer to the body of your question, I suspect that the Space Shuttle boosters may be what you're looking for. https://web.archive.org/web/20100725220547/http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/technology/sts-newsref/srb.html gives the weight of an empty SRB as 192,000 lb. The SRBs don't actually reach space altitude, so they don't qualify if you're asking your question in the Guinness Book sense. They are part of a spacecraft, though. Spacecraft that "return by parachute" don't use the parachute from space altitude or orbital speed, either. Thus, if your underlying question is "How large of a spacecraft can use parachutes for descent after re-entry?", the SRBs demonstrate that it's possible at least up to the 90t range. Note that SRB impact speed is rather high; if you're trying to land anything more fragile than a thick-walled solid-fuel rocket, you'll want retrorockets for landing as well.

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