A parachute is a soft fabric device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag . Parachutes are generally used to slow the descent of a person or object to Earth or another celestial body with an atmosphere . Parachutes are also sometimes used to aid horizontal deceleration of a vehicle (an airplane or space shuttle after touchdown, or a drag racer ). The word parachute comes from the French words para , protect or shield, and chute , to fall. Therefore parachute actually means to protect from a fall . Many types of modern parachute are quite maneuverable, and can be flown like gliders .
Parachutes were once made from silk but these days are almost always constructed from more durable woven nylon fabrics, sometimes coated with a zero porosity coating to improve performance and consistency over time.
A few medieval documents record the use of parachute-like devices to allow a person to fall (somewhat) safely from a height. In 852 , an Andalusian daredevil named Armen Firman jumped from a tower in Cordoba using a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts to arrest his fall, sustaining only minor injuries. In 1178 , another Muslim attempted a similar feat in Constantinople , but he broke several bones and later died of his injuries. According to Joseph Needham there were working parachutes in China as early as the twelfth century .