There's a philosophical war going on in space policy circles these days, between those who believe that grand, ambitious missions drive invention (Apollo), and those who believe it's the other way around (DARPA).
Honestly, I think either approach can work, given wise management. But NASA's new direction tilts more toward the DARPA model, at least for human spaceflight, which has suffered from a lack of innovation. The new NASA budget invests in technology development, in the hope that it will enable flights to Mars down the road. In case anyone misses the point, NASA has proposed two new programs named after inventors: "Franklin" would develop new satellite subsystems, and "Edison" would demonstrate them in space.
Everything I know about the Edison program is contained in this short presentation to a NASA technology conference held earlier this week. But I'm already intrigued. The agency hopes by 2012 to have at least four small Edison missions going at any one time, each costing less than $10 million. The example given of a possible flight project is a demonstration of "flux-pinned" spacecraft, which I'd never heard of before. You can read more about the concept here, or watch the video below.
I have no idea if flux-pinning will be a breakthrough in spacecraft design, or if it will remain a laboratory curiosity. Some Edison projects will undoubtedly be dead ends, providing ammunition to critics of the technology-first approach. But engineers working on large NASA flight projects often find themselves having to back out of blind alleys, too (which puts the "plus" in cost-plus contracts).
I'd like to see programs like Edison at least given a chance. It has been a long time since inventors were allowed to flourish at NASA. To quote Bob Marley, every time they planted a seed, said "kill it before it grows."
Let's hope it doesn't happen this time, too.