NEW YORK — Hundreds of people flocked to the American Museum of Natural History today (Aug. 16) to hear the last space shuttle crew speak about the end of the shuttle program, and the future of NASA.
Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim told the huge crowd here about their 13-day trip to the International Space Station in July on the STS-135 mission. The flight was NASA's 135th and last shuttle voyage, and closed out the 30-year reusable space plane program.
"It was truly an honor and a privilege to man the final space shuttle mission," Ferguson said.
NASA is now targeting manned deep space missions to explore an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid 2030s. [NASA's Shuttle Program in Pictures: A Tribute]
"One of you guys down here could be the person who walks on Mars," Hurley told the children in the audience.
NASA's final shuttle flight was a jam-packed mission to deliver tons of spare supplies and new hardware to the International Space Station, which is set to run through at least 2020. The shuttle Atlantis launched into space to begin the mission on July 8. It landed July 21, bringing NASA's three-decade shuttle era to an end.
"The International Space Station is a really special place," said Magnus, who previously spent four-and-a-half months living and working on the orbiting laboratory. "We've had people living there for 11 years now. Keep your eye on that for the next few years."
The crew answered questions from kids, such as "What do you do for fun in space?" (The answer: flying, according to Walheim), and what their favorite space foods are.
"I think my crewmates can tell you my favorite food is shrimp cocktail," Hurley said with a laugh. "I almost turned into a shrimp. It's really good."
The spaceflyers also encouraged the kids to study hard in school so they can become explorers too one day. Ferguson emphasized the value of perseverance for an aspiring astronaut.
"I applied to NASA, and I didn't get accepted the first time, I didn't get accepted the second time, but I got accepted the third time," Ferguson said.
One boy asked what it feels like to launch on a shuttle, and Ferguson described the sound of the spacecraft's main engines igniting.
"It starts like a low rumble that builds kind of like an earthquake," he said. "It's really quite a spectacular experience."
The crowd at the event included museum goers from the United States and abroad, and children spanning a wide range of ages.
Khadijah Patterson, a 17-year-old student taking summer courses in the museum's Lang Science Program, said she was interested in studying astronomy and relished the opportunity to see the astronauts.
"I'm meeting people who've done firsthand what I want to study," she told SPACE.com.
Her classmate, Yoko Higuchi, 16, also didn't hesitate at the chance to see the crew.
"These are the last astronauts to fly on the shuttle," Higuchi said. "I heard about it and thought, 'I'm not going to miss this.'"