reaching for the stars
He's famed in Hong Kong for helping design its contribution to space discovery - tools for the Mir space station and European Mars missions. Ng Tze-chuen recalls in our new weekly series the highs and lows of 30 years working with celebrated scientists, battling bureaucracy ... . and being tailed by spies
A Russian security service agent greeted me when I stepped out of my Moscow hotel in 1994. He was to be my tour guide on my first and last trip to Star City, the nerve centre of the Russian space agency.
The Russian winter is nothing to sneer at, and the drive without heating on terrible roads took an hour. Our tiny black box of a 1940 Russian vehicle felt like it had no suspension and broke down soon after we set out. The driver used a crank like those used on antique motors to restart the engine.
Instead of feeling privileged at being the first Hong Kong citizen invited to the city, I felt more like a kidnapped Chinese scientist because my ever-friendly tour guide was eyeing every inch of me and my every move. To increase my discomfort, he and the driver smoked cheap cigars incessantly. I couldn't open a window - the winder was broken - so I was practically choking in a gas chamber by the time we reached the formidable gate to the city.
Inside the gate we were overtaken by a car carrying four grim-looking men in raincoats who didn't look any more welcoming than my 'tour guide'. 'Just what I need - more secret agents,' I thought. 'Now I am completely on my own. If I disappear now, no one would know where to find me. '
It turned out one of the men in the second car was Alexander Alexandrov, one of Russia's most famous astronauts. I greeted him politely but he just ignored me.
It had taken me years of effort and correspondence to get here. After watching a television documentary on laboratory work aboard a US space shuttle, I realised I could design much better tools. Based on a surgical forceps I had designed and patented for a German medical instruments maker, I designed instruments for use by astronauts in zero gravity. I drafted some early designs for use in outer space before there were any takers.
Eventually, I designed an entire kit with dozens of interconnectable components for different experiments and tasks inside a microgravity space vehicle. There were more than 70 interconnected parts consisting of stainless-steel claws, forceps and shanks, with more than 100 combinations, catering to any experimental situation from animal dissection to precision soldering.
Approaching the Americans and the Russians was the next logical step because they were running active space missions. But I got nowhere with Nasa. The Americans did not have a space station at the time and were far less interested in performing experiments in zero-gravity than the Russians.
If finding Nasa addresses was easy but convincing their officials impossible, it was the other way round with the Russians. It was before the popularity of the internet, and finding the Russian space agency's addresses was nearly impossible. Letters to embassies went unanswered. I never found out which of my dozens of letters reached the right person, but out of nowhere in 1994, the agency sent a fax to my home. Its top bosses, Dr Oleg Tsygankov and Dr Alexandrov, the astronaut, would meet me in Moscow. The two were in charge of Mir, at that time the first long-term research station in space.
Russia today is booming and I was impressed by how vibrant Moscow's city life has become on a recent visit. However, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was very different. I had expected Star City to be like any one of those famous Nasa centres such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It wasn't. The roads were full of holes, the buildings decrepit. I was led into one with broken windows and lifts and a washroom where newspaper substituted for toilet paper.
I knew Russian space scientists had suffered serious budgetary cuts, but I didn't realise how bad things had become. However, things looked up when my translator came out to greet me. She was beautiful and sympathetic, a major relief after spending so much time with bulky secret agents. 'They like your inventions and respect your courage to knock on our door,' she told me quietly. My tour guide had also relaxed a bit. 'Hands off - she belongs to our big boss,' he told me in English.
I was about to be taken to my hosts at the operations centre for Mir, the space station that had been orbiting our planet since 1986.