NASA knows that. And that's why its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, invests in the kinds of technology that will advance aerospace and space exploration.
NIAC has selected eight concepts that it will fund through the second phase of research. That means these proposals could potentially get hundreds of thousands of dollars if they produce promising results in the lab.
1. An astronaut hibernation pod for deep-space missions
Spaceworks Engineering, Inc. is designing an astronaut sleep pod for long-distance space missions. Sort of like the "hypersleep" chamber in which Matt Damon uses to rest in Interstellar.
"This new and innovative habitat design is capable of cycling the crew through inactive, non-cryonic torpor sleep states for the duration of the in-space mission segments," according to a NASA release.
If we want to send humans to far-off places, we'll need something like this. Even the journey to our neighbor Mars will take at least six months.
2. A wind- and solar-powered aircraft
It's called the Dual-Aircraft Platform (DAP) and NASA wants to use it as a low-cost alternative to orbital satellites.
The aircraft is essentially two gliders connected by a cable. DAP could hover in the stratosphere for years simply running off solar and wind power.
"Such platforms would diversify and expand observational capabilities — for example, NASA's Earth science missions — and communications bandwidth and availability in underserved remote areas of the United States, at a fraction of the cost of orbital satellite networks," William Engblom, a professor of mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering, said in a statement.
3. Spacecraft that can travel at relativistic speeds
We can already make particles inside particle accelerators reach nearly the speed of light, but scientists are nowhere close to that speed on a larger scale.
Engineers want to use a type of laser propulsion to accelerate spacecraft to relativistic speeds. If we can travel that quickly, then missions beyond our solar system will finally become possible.
"All of the current conventional propulsion systems are incapable of reaching the high speeds necessary to enable interstellar flight," researcher Philip Lubin wrote. "Directed energy offers a path forward that, while difficult, is feasible."
4. Better brakes for spacecraft
Spacecraft traveling from Earth out into the solar system have to rev up to incredible speeds to reach their destinations in a reasonable amount of time. The problem is, when you're hurtling along at thousands of miles per hour, it's hard to slow down.
One way to do it is to use the drag from the atmosphere of another planet, but that can lead to dangerous friction and heating.
NASA is funding a way to wrap spacecraft in magnetized plasma that would interact with the atmosphere and slow down the spacecraft without roasting it.
The concept is called a Magnetoshell.
5. Tiny microsatellites
The full potential for really small satellites is unknown because they're too difficult to maneuver, but researchers think they could be incredibly useful in astrophysics.
So NASA is investing in a concept called "plasmonic force propulsion" that will make it easier to control small satellites.
"Plasmonic force propulsion provides attitude control capability for small spacecraft with minimal power penalty and minimal mass and volume penalty," according to researcher Joshua Rovey.
6. A growable space habitat
If we want to set up human colonies beyond Earth, we're going to need smartly designed habitats to live in.
Researchers are working on building a rotating, expandable habitat for space. There aren't many details about the design of the habitat, but it's based on the concept of "tensegrity" that manipulates tension.
"The habitat can become a tourist destination, an economic hub and a multipurpose research and support facility for lunar surface development and space ecosystem life sciences," researcher Anthony Longman wrote in a description of the design.
7. Bigger mirrors for telescopes
The new James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror is so big it has to be assembled with smaller mirror segments. But astronomers want even larger mirrors so they can see farther and more clearly out into space.
A team of engineers is working on a mirror that can contract for launch and then fold out like a petal once it reaches space.
8. Cryogenic surfaces
Researchers have developed a type of coating they call "Solar White" that can keep things cool even in direct sunlight. It is predicted to reflect about 99.9% of the sun's energy.
"The ramifications of such a coating are broad and significant, ranging from enabling long-term cryogenic storage to allowing passive high-temperature superconductor operation in space," researcher Robert Youngquist wrote in a post for NASA.
We'll see which of these projects get off the ground with NASA's help.