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NASA pushing hard to get back to the moon this year. Really

Half a century after Apollo 11, the space agency is aiming to start establishing a permanent presence on the lunar surface as soon as possible.

Apollo 11 lunar module in flight above the moon, with Earth in the background.

The lunar module returns to meet the command module in the moon's orbit after Armstrong and Aldrin's 22-hour stay on the surface.

NASA

The day after it ended the Opportunity rover's 14-year tenure on Mars, NASA told reporters it hopes to move quickly to return to the surface of the moon, perhaps even by the end of 2019.

"Our wish is to fly this year," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. He was speaking at a media roundtable Thursday focused on the agency's lunar exploration plans. 

Both Zurbuchen and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine identified speed as the priority for a new lunar landing system, but cautioned that actual launch dates will depend on how quickly NASA's commercial partners can fulfill upcoming tasks. Those tasks will be announced within the next month or so.

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"We want to incentivize speed, financially," Zurbuchen said. "We want to start taking shots on goal." 

NASA under the Trump administration has been emphasizing a grand vision to return to the lunar surface and establish a permanent presence there. The plan centers on the construction of an orbiting "gateway" around the moon, as well as new lunar landers and rovers. 

In November, the agency announced the names of nine commercial companies it'll contract with to help deliver payloads to the moon. Next week, NASA will announce a dozen scientific and research payloads it's selected, followed by more details on what part of the moon they'll be delivered to, Zurbuchen said Thursday. 

He went on to hint there's only one company "in the catalog" that would likely be able to pull off the first task to be announced soon. 

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Astrobotic designed a lunar lander capable of delivering a payload to the moon's surface.

Astrobotic

Of the companies announced in November, Lockheed Martin and Draper, whose experience can be traced back to the Apollo era, arguably have the most experience in space. The other seven companies are Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond. 

But we'll have to wait and see exactly what it is NASA hopes to send to the moon before we have a better idea of which company is going to carry it there and how soon.

Bridenstine said the goal is to have a contract in hand for the next lunar mission by July. Definitely not by coincidence, the date coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

2019 is shaping up to be pretty space-tastic already.