And to be honest, when these things happen, I can't help but feel a slight annoyance. Many of these things are based upon false premises, or people who live in the 1960's, or general ignorance of spaceflight that results in xenophobia, anti-americanism, armchair experts (I'm being a little bit of a hypocrite here, I'll admit that) schooling others like it's their job and nationalist slapfights.
Something I've seen so many times lately is that we can use lunar resources to pay off our debt, make fusion attainable, makes spaceflight more sustainable and many more things. But is this really true? Can lunar resources make the moon an economically viable source for materials needed on Earth? I don't think so. Let me show you this with an example.
Say we assume the cheapest LV in terms of cost/kg currently available in the near future, Falcon heavy. With ~2500 $/kg, this vehicle could get 53 metric tons into LEO with a cost of $135 million. The ∆V needed to return from the lunar surface is 3 km/s. A 53 ton stage with a 0.87 PMF (realistic since there have to be legs and everything attached to the stage) could get about ~35 tonnes back to Earth. This stage would land on the moon, be refueled there, and could be sent back. So how much would this cost?
The cost of this material would be $3900 per kg. But it gets worse. This assumes that the entire payload is nothing but the actual material. If you put it in a container, it becomes more expensive. Something like a Dragon capsule can return 3/4 of it's own mass back down to the surface, or 3/7 of total mass. Suddenly, you're looking at 4 tons returned to Earth, and a cost of $9000/kg. And in the case of a low density material like Helium 3, you get even lower return down to the surface.
To make things even better, this assumes that the base put there was entirely free and that the stage could be refueled there for free. If you don't assume refueling there's no payload at all, and if you take into account the cost of a lunar mining base, which is on the order of $100 billion, you'll quickly see why lunar mining isn't very economical currently. This also assumed the cheapest vehicle to LEO available in the near future; if you went with Delta IV it would cost 6 times as much.
So, lunar resources are, for the time being, a pie in the sky dream. They are extremely expensive to get back and the ROI would take so long (if there was any profit at all) that it simply isn't worth it for a long, long time. I'm not saying they can't be useful, a prop depot in lunar orbit or a small refueling base could really ease up lunar exploration. I don't think it should be held like a good reason to go there. If lunar resources are to be seriously considered as a reason for lunar exploration, we should first get launch costs down by one or two orders of magnitude before it is a serious argument in favour of lunar resources for use on earth.
And Helium-3... How about we perfect Tritium-Deuterium fusion before we go there to pick it up? And there's always Proton-Boron fusion if neutron-less fusion is so important. It's not really necessary for attainable fusion.
A new Space Race and China's space dominance
By far my favorite. Go on any thread on reddit related to China's space program and you'll find a bunch of people preaching about the new space race, that the US should step up their game because the Chinese are overtaking "us", etc. And I usually just sit there laughing or being slightly frustrated with this.
First, why a new space race? There certainly are no signs of one. China is stepping up their game but neither the US nor Russia show any sign of doing the same. Their plans have changed little regarding exploration; the US still has to work in the direction of an asteroid, and Russia still works in the direction of the moon and Lagrange points. There is no space race going on at the moment.
What surprises me even more are all the people who wish for a new space race. And I flat out don't get it. What happened the last time we had one? The US landed on the moon. The costs, which were so high in part because of time pressure, sent Congress and the administration into shell shock. Apollo applications was canceled and a "cheaper" LV, the space shuttle, was signed into law. That "cheap" LV got the US stuck into orbit for 30 years. Apollo was expensive, accomplished little and forced NASA into the terrible position it was in for the past few decades, until it was decided to finally axe the shuttle in favor of a conventional rocket with a normal capsule. A safer, more affordable and more flexible vehicle. Alright, Orion and Ares 1 are a bad example. Falcon 9 and Dragon, or Atlas V with CST-100 are better examples. Still, the last space race got us stuck for a long time.
A new space race would get NASA to the surface of the moon, maybe Mars, for a few times. We would alienate a potential spaceflight partner, would cause NASA to create an expensive and unsustainable program similar to CxP, only to cause massive budget cuts once the program is over and we'll never go anywhere for many years afterwards. The other option is teaming up with China/Russia/whatever dirty commie country 'Murica is afraid of for no reason/ESA and spread costs and effort over several different nations, allowing large scale exploration for much lower cost in a more sustainable way. Which one do you think will result in more stuff getting done?
Biggest LV: Long March 2F/G, 11.2 tons into LEO. 25 ton launcher in the works.
One crewed spacecraft, three crew, a few days on orbit life time. No new one in the works.
Budget $1.3 billion
Biggest LV: Delta IV Heavy, 28.8 tons to LEO. 53 and 70 ton launchers in the works.
No crewed spacecraft, but four in the works. One can support crew of four for three weeks.
Budget $16.8 billion
So yeah. Another big red scare that really isn't that scary. China is not yet capable of doing anything the US hasn't long been able to do, and they don't have the means to do anything significant for the time being. They have a focus, which is a big improvement over what the US has. But should the next administration of the US decide to switch focus, all that has to be done is developing a lunar lander and the US could be back on the moon by 2025. China isn't even trying to land earlier than that. Older articles claim 2017 but these are usually very outdated.
"NASA should get off their arse and do something productive, they don't do anything unlike China"
Let me just answer with a few pictures.
|Curiosity is a lot cooler than Yutu.|
|Cassini, currently orbiting Saturn|
|New Horizons spacecraft, currently underway to Pluto|