Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst.
Tomorrow, 14 December, marks another bittersweet anniversary in the history of exploration. It was on that day in 1972 that Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt lifted off from the surface of the moon. Since then, no other humans have gone there.
The moon was hot property in the 1960s, as the tensions of the Cold War spilled beyond the surface of the earth. Space was a new strategic frontier, and it was easy (but erroneous) to simply paste long-held concepts of political and strategic geography onto this 'new ocean' and the new lands it held.
The impact of 'Sputnik shock' on the US had also been profound, prompting a panicked rush to accelerate America's development of space technology. Without this injection of paranoia, it is unlikely that the Apollo program that took astronauts to the moon would have been conceived.
The world was enthralled by the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, but quickly lost interest in the subsequent landings. Soon, moon landings would represent a short and glorious blip in the history of the twentieth century.
Why have we not returned to the moon in 40 years? Apart from the tremendous cost and technical capacity required for such missions, we have simply found no suitable return on investment. The moon is a lifeless, barren world. With our current technology, it is unsuitable for mining, farming or colonisation. There is also no value in placing military bases or weapons on the moon, and this is forbidden under international law.
The moon still retains interest to science. Robot spacecraft still make regular visits, and in 2013, China will land a probe there. But until there is a massive change in technology, global needs and geopolitics, it is unlikely humans will return.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.