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Saturday's news of the death of Neil Armstrong took me back to the family room of our house in Lakewood, Colo., where on a summer day in 1969 the 14-year-old version of myself sat riveted to a television screen alongside my recently retired Air Force dad.

We didn't agree on much in those days, but we both knew what we were watching was important.

Forty-three years later, the words are clich? "The Eagle has landed," "One small step," "One giant leap." At the time, though, they raised goosebumps.

There we were, in our comfortable suburban home, watching men – and, importantly, American men – walking on the surface of the moon. It was a wonderful moment in the truest sense of that word: We were full of wonder.

My father was a pilot and a stargazer, and he had raised me to look at the heavens with awe and curiosity. Like many kids of the 1960s, I followed the space program with hunger for details. I knew the astronauts' names and built models of their rockets and followed the launches on network TV.

After he quit flying, Dad had stayed in the Air Force and worked in reconnaissance and intelligence. Ten years before Armstrong walked on the moon, Dad was working on the secretive U2 project (something I only found out after he died). He knew what it felt like to "slip the surly bonds of Earth," and he understood the calling of the "high frontier."

I knew he was thrilled as I was at those ghostly, grainy images that shone from our TV screen on July 20, 1969, but as I marveled at the astronauts bouncing around in the moon's 1/6 gravity, he stayed in character. "How do you like them apples?" was about as enthusiastic as Dad would get.

Armstrong, who early in his flying career had feared he missed the era of big achievements in aviation, was cut from the same cloth as my dad. While he offered some commentary about his surroundings – the moon had "a stark beauty all its own" – he was a man of action, not words. He shunned the spotlight when he returned to Earth, telling his family that he felt badly that the accolades fell onto him and not onto the tens of thousands of people who helped Apollo 11 achieve its goal.

Armstrong came out in public in recent years, scolding President Barack Obama for cancelling NASA's plan to return to the moon and testifying before Congress about the importance of space exploration.

It's still important, but not like it was in the &‘60s. The decade began with a young and vibrant President Kennedy vowing that Americans would stand on the moon by 1970. The Soviet Union, in which we were engaged in a Cold War that most of us believed would eventually turn "hot," was kicking our butt in the "Space Race." The war in Vietnam was at its deadly peak. Violence wracked our inner cities. Assassinations felled our political heroes.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced their way across the Sea of Tranquillity and planted an American flag in the lunar dust, it was a moment we could all celebrate. When they squeezed back into their landing craft less than three hours later, leaving behind a plaque that read "We came in peace for all mankind," we enjoyed a moment of unity and pride.

Of course, it didn't last long. Three years later, after 12 Americans had walked on the moon, the era of lunar exploration was over. America had won the Space Race, and the urgency just wasn't there any more. The attention NASA garnered in the ensuing decades has largely focused on disasters such as Challenger and Columbia.

Even at a time when we can go online and find pictures being beamed back from the Curiosity mission on Mars, Armstrong's death is a reminder of how far space has fallen out of the public eye.

It's also a good reminder that once, for a few brief moments, Americans all cheered for the same outcome.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County. </i>