It is a bittersweet moment in a film (based on an unproduced script written by the French mime and filmmaker Jacques Tati) that flows like a sad love song, playing the regret of a father not being in his daughter's life and marking the end of the music hall era. Acrobats, ventriloquists, clowns and magicians who were once revered are now out-of-fashion, replaced by rock bands and television sets. The pleasures of a simpler time now pushed aside for a more modern aesthetic. And it happens slowly, ever so slowly, with the people who plied their arthouse trades quietly fading out into the night seemingly unnoticed.
With the final landing last month of space shuttle Atlantis and the end of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program, there was a striking similarity between an aging illusionist and this scientific fade to black.
It was July 21, 1969, at 02:56 UTC time, when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. A feat that was watched around the globe by 500 million people.
It was July 21, 2011, at 05:57 EST time, when Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, having come back from delivering a year's worth of supplies to the International Space Station. Not as high profile or as glamorous as a man on the moon, but it was Atlantis' 33rd mission and the 135th for the shuttle program overall. I don't know how many people actually watched this final landing.
There were five shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis (with Challenger exploding after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia breaking apart during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere in 2003) that all carried the hopes and dreams and curiosity of the great unknown that is space. The possibilities that something exists beyond our known world, that the things human beings do each day, while important in the day to day, become a little less significant and a tad more futile in the grander scheme of things.
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I remember when NASA coverage preempted everything on TV, but this was TV when there were only the big three national networks and a bunch of small local channels thrown in the mix. There was no cable or satellite or internet. Ironic that the very object that ousted the magical hold of live performances and a day at the movie theater, the idiot box, had a simpler time of its own.
And so the space shuttle program didn't go out with a bang, but slowly, ever so slowly, faded out of the consciousness of American pop culture. The wonderment for something outside our planet, the process of curiosity for the natural world and beyond, has been replaced with iPhones and iPads and YouTube and 3D movies and 500+ satellite channels and rap music and high-end sneakers and whatever the latest tech gadget/viral video/pop trend is that occupies a person's brain for 20-seconds or less.
Of course, not all of us have forgotten about outer space. There are private companies hoping to launch their own shuttles into the sky. For a profit, of course. And NASA intends to raise funds and develop deep-space rockets. But it may take a decade or more. That's 9 years and 364 days too long.
In the meantime, I'll revisit some Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke, play Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube" and think of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, sit down and actually watch Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey or episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (where are you Jean-Luc Picard?) and keep the candle burning.
Magic is out there, it's our imaginations that no longer exist. And this Alice will keep hoping mankind finds wonderland again.