HISTORY IS TIME, and time has a way of flattening out. Peaks and valleys very quickly become plains; complex matters become simpler and simpler. The Civil War becomes a struggle over the Emancipation Proclamation and World War II a matter of avenging Pearl Harbor.

All of this came home quite vividly recently when astronaut Sally Ride delivered a report to NASA on future goals of America's space program. She presented an interesting menu of items, but in the process she inadvertently (I think) ran roughshod over history.

The report quoted an earlier report by the National Commission on Space expressing "a strong wish that our next goal in space activity to be another Apollo -- a one-shot foray or a political stunt . . . ."

This is revisionist history. The Apollo program could be called a lotof things, but "a one-shot foray" and a "stunt" it was not. Put aside judgments of the Kennedy decision to go to the moon and its moment in history: a Cold War environment, Soviet competition, the Sputnik embarrassment. Whatever its genesis, the achievement of putting men on the moon and returning them safely to Earth is tarnished when quick, flip phrases are uttered by those who don't know or understand. Or have forgotten.

Think what it took to accomplish America's seven manned landings on the moon: an industrial infrastructure of 25,000 companies, many of which had not previously existed; technical, engineering and scientific programs on college campuses and in private labs; breakthroughs in propulsion, in tracking and data acquisition, in human engineering and medicine; a government management capability (led by James Webb, who is finally being recognized as perhaps our greatest program manager); and new technologies in materials, electronics and computers.

NASA preached that Apollo was not a singular event but an effort to develop a total capability that would enable the nation to do anything in space it desired to do.

While NASA is best known for its manned Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, it also sent unmanned spacecraft to the planets, observed the stars, pioneered aeronautical research, introduced weather and navigation by satellite and launched the communication-satellite era.

In recalling the excitement of Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon, we forget names like Explorer, Viking, Mariner, Pioneer, Nimbus, Ranger, Surveyor, Voyager, Telstar, Syncom, Relay, Tiros, and Skylab. In recalling Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Frank Borman, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins,, we forget William Pickering, Homer Newell, Robert Jastrow and Hugh Dryden.

Cumulatively these projects, these people, and the capabilities they nurtured enable us today to even consider whether we should establish a lunar base or fly men to Mars. Simply put, Apollo gave us a new way of thinking about ourselves, our universe and our place in that universe.

"A one-shot foray," a "stunt"? Clearly no.

Julian Scheer was NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs from 1962 to 1971 and is now senior vice president of The LTV Corp.