Flightglobal Hyperbola column's analysis of the new privately-led space race to land a man or woman on Mars (between Dennis Tito's outfit, SpaceX and Mars One) has led us to consider how we would do it. Actually, we would go for the "Tuco" approach. Tuco was the villainous character in the Spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967), who liked to use different parts of various revolvers: barrel, cylinder etc to build his ideal pistol.
In this instance we would use different elements for differnt firms to form our ideal mission. For example, the Isle of Man's Excalibur outfit's electric thruster powered space liner, launched via a Proton or Falcon Heavy or even via an SLS, and attached to a chemical transfer and braking stage, would be an ideal manned transfer vehicle. Its electric thrusters, used on the return leg, might make a Mars mission faster than it would be using an energy efficient Hohmann transfer orbit. But getting to and from Mars orbit is only part of the problem.
While originally mooted for Moon missions, Excalibur Almaz's converted space station could be ideal for Mars missions. Courtesy: Excalibur Almaz
For such a mission, you need an Earth planetary re-entry vehicle to return at superorbital velocities (any partially lifting blunt body capsule could do this e.g. Soyuz, Orion or Almaz). Our choice would be NASA/Lockheed Martin's Orion.
But the bit we are missing a lander and ascent vehicle to get to and from the surface (Dennis Tito's initial mission is apparently only going to be sending a two-man crew on a free return trajectory with no orbital insertion or Mars landing). It would be very expensive but perhaps SpaceX aided and abetted by Northrop Grumman, the builder of the Apollo Lunar Module, would have the answer. We might be tempted to send one or more ahead of any manned mission orbit around Mars first, just in case the one used had trouble with its ascent stage.