Atlantis' crew stands before the orbiter following their successful landing on July 21.
updated 7/25/2011 5:35:52 PM ET 2011-07-25T21:35:52

When the space shuttle Atlantis came to a halt for the last time, so did the dreams of all who had fantasized of riding on a space shuttle someday.

That doesn't mean, however, that astronaut hopefuls should give up the goal of flying in space. They just have to adjust their idea of how they plan to get there.

"I think the opportunities are still there" for kids to become astronauts, STS-135 mission specialist Rex Walheim, who landed on Atlantis' last mission Thursday, said before the flight. "We'll get back there. There's no question, it may take a few years, but for young kids today, it should be a blink of an eye."

Bright future
Though NASA has now retired its 30-year-old space shuttle fleet, the U.S. space agency is certainly not getting out of the business of human spaceflight, its officials say. The International Space Station is set to operate at least through 2020, and NASA astronauts will continue to compose a significant portion of its six-person crew.

NASA / Kim Shiflett
Space shuttle Atlantis gleams in the darkness at it touches down on the Shuttle Landing Facility's Runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final time. Atlantis' wheels came to a stop at 5:57:54 a.m. on July 21.

For the immediate future, Americans will have to hitch rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but NASA is hoping U.S. commercial spaceships will soon be able to take over the job.

For its part, NASA is embarking on an ambitious program of deep space exploration. The agency is developing a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit to the moon, an asteroid and Mars.

"If kids are in school right now and want to be astronauts, there's going to be possibly even more opportunities," Walheim told "With the commercialization of access to low-Earth orbit, that will give people a chance to go to the International Space Station. And then beyond low-Earth orbit exploration, NASA will be right in the front of that. The one thing I can say to the kids is: Don't take a shortsighted time frame; look at the long-term time frame, and the future of American space is pretty bright."

Study hard
A 12-year-old today might be about 20 years away from becoming an astronaut on the normal timeline, which requires advanced training in math and science.

"In 20 years, I think some amazing things are going to happen," said retired astronaut Pam Melroy, one of only two women to command the space shuttle. "Would I have loved to have flown the Apollo capsule? God, yes. How cool would that be? But I certainly don’t dwell on it, because I got the opportunity to fly on the shuttle. And they will have other vehicles that they can fly, and I will sit on the ground and be jealous of them."

It's not too early for kids who dream of becoming astronauts to start planning for the future.

"You must have a degree in engineering or science or math or an appropriate technical field," said retired astronaut Eileen Collins, the space shuttles' first woman commander. "If you want to be competitive to be selected, you must do well in school. If we're going to explore Mars or the asteroids or the moon, we're going to need geologists that also have operational skills. You can learn how to fly, how to scuba dive. And learn a language — I think if you do, it will make you more competitive for the astronaut job."

Astronaut Cady Coleman, who recently returned from a long-duration stint on the International Space Station, said that in the absence of the shuttles, we need to make the station more visible to students.

"Schools should check in on space stations, you know, just to realize that you don't need to wait for a space shuttle to launch," Coleman said. "People live there. Every day."

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And children who are inspired by space should also know that becoming an astronaut isn't the only way to get involved.

Stephanie Stilson, a 20-year NASA worker who's now serving as the flow director for shuttle retirement, recalled visiting the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center rocket garden when she was in third grade.

"I remember telling my dad, 'When I grow up I want to work for NASA. This is just great, this is so cool,'" Stilson said. "I think about it because you hear a lot of people say, especially the astronauts, that they say, 'Oh, ever since I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut.' And while I would love to be an astronaut, it was funny that I didn't say I wanted to be an astronaut; I said, 'I want to work for NASA.' Because this is what I was seeing; I wasn't just seeing the astronaut part of it, I was seeing all the rockets in the garden."

Ultimately, the end of the shuttle is not the end for American human spaceflight.

Astronaut Mike Fincke, a member of the last crew of space shuttle Endeavour, brought his family, including his three young children, to see Atlantis launch for the last time July 8.

"I'm glad to share this historic moment with them," Fincke said, "and I'm also trying to get them to understand that this is the closing of one page and the opening up of a new chapter of where humans are going, and I'm looking forward to being part of that team."

You can follow senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Managing editor Tariq Malik (@tariqjmalik) contributed reporting for this story. Visit Space.comfor complete coverage of Atlantis' final mission STS-135 or follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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