BEIJING, Aug. 28 (Xinhua) -- Astronomers in Beijing are expecting more "giant leaps" in the future through ambitious exploration of the universe, while mourning the death of the first man to make a "small step" on the Moon.
The departure on Saturday of Neil Armstrong, the very first human being to set foot on the Moon, has cast a shadow over attendees of the 28th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), being held in Beijing from Aug. 20 to 31.
"This has been a great loss to humanity. Many of us here owe our careers and dreams to him," said Natalie M. Batalha, Kepler Mission scientist with the Space Science and Astrobiology Division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States.
In her keynote speech on Tuesday morning, Batalha mentioned two space heroes who have died this year -- Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman to enter into low Earth orbit.
"There will come a day when there is no living human being left who has stepped on another world -- nobody left to tell the story," said Batalha, who described Armstrong's passing as a "wake-up call".
"He symbolized the spirit of exploration and the courage of taking risks, during a time when NASA took a lot of risks," Batalha told Xinhua.
"The Kepler Mission made a big poster for Armstrong's birthday this year, and all of our scientists wrote messages to him on the poster," she recalled.
Armstrong, who famously described his setting-foot on the Moon in 1969 as "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind", was known as a very quiet and private person.
"I've never met him in person. He was very reserved and did not go to a lot of events. It was difficult to meet him," Batalha said.
However, his legacy is no less enormously important. Explorations of the universe will continue, and the Kepler Mission has been approved by NASA to extend its survey for another four to five years, Batalha said.
NASA now has no concrete plans to send humans to the Moon again in the near future, but there's a long-term vision to continue to push that frontier, she said.
"The Curiosity (Mars Rover) is a prime example. We don't send a person to go to Mars, but we are exploring through the senses of the robot. It's a smart way of exploration, costing less money and involving less risk. We still have a lot to learn," she said.
Batalha's view was echoed by Nader Haghighipour, professor of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.
"Scientifically and technologically speaking, it may not be quite possible to send someone to other planets, like Mars, but we are doing the same thing that Neil Armstrong did many years ago. We are doing it with robots," he said. "We are following the same path."
Armstrong was considered a symbol, and he influenced younger generations not only in the United States but also in many other corners on the planet, according to Zhu Jin, curator of the Beijing Planetarium.
"The Moon is the first and the only planet which has been reached by humans. Armstrong's heroic action leads younger people to look into the universe, not only to the Moon, but also to objects very far away from the Earth," Zhu said.
"Human beings, as a whole, will eventually try to explore other places in space, out of curiosity or even necessity, instead of being caged on one planet."
Xie Jiwei, 28, is one of the younger-generation astronomers to be inspired by Armstrong, and he has been chosen as one of the youngest speakers at the IAU General Assembly.
"Armstrong's story planted a seed in my heart when I was a kid. He made me believe that nothing is impossible, if you dare to think," said Xie, assistant researcher at the Astronomy Department of Nanjing University.
"Armstrong took the first step, and we will follow his footprints step by step into the deep universe. I believe in the near future, humans' exploration will make a big difference," said the young man.
Batalha is also quite confident about humankind's further exploration efforts.
"I harbor much hope and optimism that we'll succeed. 'One day, from the shores of a new world, we'll gaze up at the sea that took us there, and its waves will be stars'," Batalha said, quoting Rui Borges, a Portuguese who submitted an essay for a contest sponsored by Kepler Mission.