Parachute cord (also paracord or 550 cord) is a lightweight nylon kernmantle rope originally used in the suspension lines of US parachutes during World War II. Once in the field, paratroopers found this cord useful for many other tasks. It is now used as a general purpose utility cord by both military personnel and civilians. This versatile cord was even used by astronauts during STS-82, the second Space Shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The braided sheath has a high number of interwoven strands for its size, giving it a relatively smooth texture. The all-nylon construction makes paracord fairly elastic; depending on the application this can be either an asset or a liability.
While the U.S. military has no overall diameter requirements in its specifications, in the field 550 cord typically measures 5⁄32 inches (4 mm) in diameter.
(source: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parachute_cord)