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The 'other' Dec. 7

Dec 7, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

This is the date the last Apollo mission lifted off for the moon

We hope it is safe to presume that most American adults still know that this date, Dec. 7, is Pearl Harbor Day. It is one of the momentous days in our nation's history, when the U.S. naval base in Hawaii was attacked by warplanes from Japan in a notorious sneak attack that instantly propelled the United States into World War II.

The year was 1941, which means it has now been 71 years since the "date which will live in infamy," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it so unforgettably in his address to Congress and the nation the following day.

It is one of the towering dates in our history, matched only by July 4, 1776, and Sept. 11, 2001, and perhaps by Nov. 22, 1963 (if you have to look those up, keep that fact to yourself).

But Dec. 7 also has significance in another part of the history books. On Dec. 7, 1972 -- 40 years ago on the nose -- the last Apollo space mission to the moon lifted off.

For the huge Baby Boomer generation, which encompasses Americans born from 1946 to 1964, the notion that America's manned space exploration program is a thing largely of the past is hard to believe.

At its peak, nothing we had ever experienced seemed more current, more modern, more trailblazing. The Space Age crackled with energy. It accelerated technology, innovation and science education. It promoted and preserved political cooperation to an extent only imagined today. It created and reinforced an enormous spirit of American prestige around the world.

The astronauts were celebrated as heroic Americans in a way now reserved only for sports or entertainment figures. And the Space Age ignited a spark of imagination that many would argue has not been equalled since.

When astronauts Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans lifted off from the launch pad in Florida, atop the most powerful engine ever built (nothing in the world today approaches the awesome force of the Saturn V rocket), it would have been laughable to suggest that a generation later our nation's only way into a manned space mission would be for astronauts to hitchhike aboard a Russian -- a Russian -- spacecraft.

Of almost equal implausibility is the reality that if we were to commit to another moon mission as of Jan. 1, 2013, it wouldn't come to fruition for at least 15 years. That's essentially twice the time elapsed between President John F. Kennedy's mandate to land Americans on the moon, which he first raised in 1961, and the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

Despite the quantum leaps in technology, and our other successes in space, are we so far removed from lunar exploration that it would take at least 15 years to do it again? The answer, apparently, is yes.

There is no particular urgency to go to the moon, of course. We're no longer racing to be first, no longer trying to make a Cold War point. Technology races ahead in other areas now. Your microwave oven has more computing power than was deployed in the entire Apollo space program. We've been there. We've done that.

It isn't so much that we need to go back. It's that we no longer feel a national effort of that kind is worthy of us, or possible from us, or even desirable from us. Our scientific prowess and technological mastery now is represented by video games and DVRs, not spaceships. We marvel at the realistic appearance of a severed, blood-spurting leg on a 3-inch video game screen rather than our ability to hit a moving target a quarter-million miles away.

There definitely seems to be a shift of ambition away from an almost infinitely grand scale based on looking far away from ourselves and toward a more-insular, more-isolated existence built on dark rooms, smartphone screens 6 inches from our faces, and ear buds blocking out the world.

We were still thinking big when Apollo 17 roared off the launch pad for the moon 40 years ago today. Among the creatures of Earth, we are the only ones capable of big ideas, grand strategies and large-scale cooperative efforts over time -- no matter what they are. Whether that capability is being properly exercised by kitten videos, iPad minis or "Madden NFL '13" is a debate worth having, particularly on Dec. 7.

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