NASA wants to skip the rockets and develop a hypersonic space plane that can take off from a runway here on Earth and fly straight to Mars.
Rockets, on the whole, are pretty inefficient: they waste most of their power just lifting their own fuel. Plus, riding on top of a barely controlled explosion isn't the safest or most reliable way to travel. As far as NASA is concerned, rockets are on the way out, and they're ponying up $15 million over the next three years to develop a hypersonic fixed wing hybrid air/space craft capable of taking off and flying straight into space at Mach 20.
Getting into Earth orbit is just phase one... NASA also wants this same vehicle to be able to land on Mars. The landing bit is going to be just as tricky to figure out as the takeoff, since the vehicle will have to withstand extreme temperatures and stresses as it descends through a planetary atmosphere. Oh, and NASA wants it to be lightweight, reliable, efficient, easy to fix, and most importantly, cheap.
$15 million doesn't seem like nearly enough to make all of this happen, and it's not. But, it does signal that NASA is starting to lay a foundation for future space technologies. NASA used to be the people who were making the future happen, and that's gotten lost a little bit in the last few decades, so it's awesome to see them looking so far forward once again.
Incidentally, the picture above is of the X-30 NASP, or National Aero-Space Plane, which Ronald Reagan promised would be doing all of this hypersonic stuff by the end of the 90s. It was canceled in 1993 due to budget cuts, but the X-51a, which hit Mach 5 this year, is basically just an unmanned, scaled-down version of the X-30. We may be a couple decades behind, but at least we're still making progress.