Since time immemorial, romantics, scientists and explorers alike have had a common conviction – that the boundaries of our physical existence are as boundless as the human imagination. From Marco Polo’s journey to the East in the 13th century against the throes of pestilence, pirates and privation, to the 21st century rover expedition to Mars against the throes of budget cuts, bureaucratic organisations, and bizarre weather on Mars, it seems that mankind’s desire to overcome all odds in achieving the unprecedented has never faltered. Indeed, such audacious travels embody the very pinnacle of human enterprise. Truly remarkable forays into the unknown ascend beyond mere scientific achievements – they rise into the ranks of legends, immortalised as a symbol of the indefatigable human spirit.
It is heartening to note how the genius and courage of the people who embark on such expeditions inspire greatness among many others. Their journeys serve as a reminder that the magnitude of human enterprise is limited only by our ability to dream of them.
For centuries, the cosmos has captivated man. Chinese romantics wrote many a poem inspired by the mysterious moon cast against the brooding night sky, fascinated by the possibility of fairy tale characters watching down on mankind thousands of miles away. In the West, various nursery rhymes toyed with man’s curiousity about the galaxy ‘up above the sky so high’. Little wonder, then, that Neil Armstrong’s maiden voyage on the Moon captivated and united – albeit momentarily – a world bitterly divided by an iron curtain. The fact that man had set foot on a galaxy so distant, a realm thought to be the world of divine beings, struck awe into the hearts of the 600 million people witnessing this spectacle live. Decades after this momentous event has passed, Neil Armstrong’s imprint on the moon remains an iconic and unforgettable feat.
Ironically, the greatness of such achievements comes to be eroded in significance over time. As these feats of the human spirit challenge our boundaries, laying bare the assumptions and myths that hold us back, they inspire others to strive towards greatness, potentially even eclipsing the achievements of the very people who inspired them. What was previously a bold venture now becomes passé vis-à-vis the sheer number of people who have accomplished similar, or even greater, feats. Roger Bannister made history by being the first to run a mile in under four minutes, disproving the seemingly unassailable wisdom of medical professionals, who postulated that man was biologically incapable of covering a mile within four minutes. His accomplishment was a revelation. Thousands of runners then saw that there was no limit to human determination and sheer grit. The Olympic dream of ‘higher, faster, stronger’ knew no medical boundaries. Following Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile accomplishment, many other runners followed in his footsteps, causing a sudden surge of people who could boast of matching, if not surpassing, Roger Bannister’s record. Such is the nature of human progress. Yet, many people, including myself, have nothing but admiration for Roger Bannister’s herculean feat. Roger Bannister is certainly not the fastest person to run a mile, but he is certainly the first to have an unwavering conviction in surmounting the impossible. Bold and audacious enterprises are remarkable precisely because of the sheer amount of human courage needed to achieve them. Roger Bannister may not be the strongest or fittest athlete of his time, but he dared to venture where no one had dared assay. Sometimes, the crevices of our minds are even more impenetrable and imposing than the highest mountain or the deepest ocean, as our insecurities, assumptions and uncertainty impose glass ceilings on our achievements.
Even when concerns of practicality limit the extent of human travel, visionaries are undeterred, embarking on unprecedented journeys in spirit. Writers have long presented tales of futuristic travels to far-removed and dangerous locations, be they the molten core of the Earth, or a galaxy at war thousands of light-years away. Such tales, although seemingly trivial and frivolous, embody the zeitgeist of their era – the stuff of daydreams. After all, being enterprising is about being bold, unafraid to embark on new ventures, and these writers should be praised for their ability to illuminate the unknown with proposed or even imagined realities. In ‘A Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, Jules Verne told the tale of a brave adventure to an undiscovered realm. In ‘The Lost World’, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced readers to an island where prehistoric creatures roamed. The much revered ‘Star Trek’ series (from which the title of this essay is derived) similarly entertained viewers with tales of intergalactic travel and adventure. These fictional stories may feature vastly different plots, written by people living in vastly different eras, but they all converge on a similar theme – mankind’s desire to surge into the unknown, making history with each footstep. As Sir Robert Walton in Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ declared, his “enticements”, namely to travel to the “country of eternal light”, were “sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death”.
Unfortunately, today’s world in some ways seems less adventurous, less daring, and less willing to embark on bold ventures. While scientific advances have given humans the means to overcome various physical obstacles – modern winter jackets have helped men withstand colder temperatures for longer periods of time, for instance – they have also concomitantly weakened the human resolve. Machines and advanced technology have been created with the aim of minimising human labour, making the human existence a less strenuous and demanding one. Where people previously had to endure weeks of sea-sickness and foul weather on board ships to travel between continents, people now need only spend a few hours on an airplane, where the largest worry is being served sub-standard on-flight meals. Years of such a pampered and comfortable existence seems to have rendered the modern man weaker – just as centuries of domestication dulled the chicken’s ability to fly. Science and technology can only play a limited role in empowering people to embark on bold ventures – no amount of scientific advancement can conquer one’s inner daemons, or one’s inner fear of the unknown.
To boldly go where no man has gone before has a certain unspoken allure. Man has an innate desire for exploration – our earliest ancestors were nomads whose very existence depended on their constant exploration of the world for new resources. This wanderlust in physique and mind seems never to have left us. Even today, many tourists are staying off the well-beaten track in favour of the adventurous appeal of exotic, far-flung areas. In 2012, eco-tourism, a form of tourism that places tourists amidst undisturbed natural surroundings, accounted for 6% of global GDP – a testament to its growing popularity. However, as modern civilisation spread in influence, many of us have become encumbered by our burdens and responsibilities, becoming increasingly risk-conscious. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented of modern civilisation, “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”. The modern man is fettered by financial concerns, familial responsibilities, and social obligations, relegating the desire to boldly travel where no man has gone before to an ebbing phantasm, an item on the list of to-dos in a bid for the one-in-a-million chance that one wins the lottery. The closest most of us can get to a modern day adventure is a short holiday in distant, rural places. It is precisely in such times that we need heroic adventurers, people whose boundless imagination is matched by their boundless human spirit – for their actions carry the dreams and fantasies of millions. Such adventurers do not merely visit a place physically; their journeys and expeditions are above all, a symbolic triumph over human boundaries, a conquest of man’s undefeatable spirit. Such adventurers have touched the lives of millions by boldly stepping into the realm of the impossible and unimaginable, going where no mind has gone before. As we look back on centuries of human achievement, we must never forget the power and promise of exploration, in mind, body and spirit.