The Inspiration Mars Foundation hopes to get a two-person crew to Mars and back starting in 2018 — and it's got a plan that can work.
Founded by wealthy "space tourist" Dennis Tito, the Inspiration Mars Foundation now has plans to launch a two-man crew on a round trip to Mars and back — a 501-day round trip that it hopes to have underway by January 2018.
Wired noted that while the plan is ambitious, it's not insane: the ship wouldn't land on Mars, in fact, it wouldn't even orbit. It would pass a few hundred kilometres above Mars before returning. It would still be an immense achievement, and one far beyond anything that a private space travel company has accomplished to date, but it does seem to be achievable.
Jane Poynter, president of the Paragon Space Development Corporation, who has partnered with the Foundation to build life support for this mission, told Wired:
The reason this entire thing is possible is because it's actually a very simple mission. We're not trying to land; we're going to fly by, and we're using extant technologies that NASA and the space industry have been developing for years.
The current plan calls for a "fast free-return trajectory": the spacecraft would have a single burn from Earth to get it on its way to Mars, then circle the planet and use Martian gravity to "slingshot" its way back to Earth.
This technique would minimise both travel time and fuel, but it does mean that the heat is on for Inspiration Mars Foundation — because the distance between Mars and Earth changes as we orbit the sun, the opportunity for a "quick flight" only comes every 15 or so years. If they miss 2018, it'll be 2031 before they can try again.
The Wired article has a very extensive look at the Mars Mission, including the myriad dangers involved. The Mars Inspiration Foundation also has a detailed fact sheet of its plans that's worth reading.