Reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2006, 12:00am

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 weekly series the highs and lows of 30 years working with celebrated scientists, battling bureaucracy ... and being tailed by spies

It was 1994 and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Yet when I was taken to a giant underground podium inside the Russian Space Agency's headquarters an hour's drive from Moscow, a large picture of Lenin was hanging on the wall. Perhaps no one had thought of taking it down. But I thought it was deliberate; a reminder of the communist empire's once glorious past in space exploration.

This proud tradition had fallen on hard times, as I had just seen for myself in Star City, the heart of the country's space agency. So far, all I had seen was broken windows and lifts, run-down buildings and pot-holed roads. Lights in most corridors were turned off to save energy.

But the podium was different - it was bright and full of advanced electronics from space capsules and satellites. There were satellite parts that looked used, perhaps having been retrieved from outer space. They intrigued me but I didn't dare ask.

The Russians were obviously cutting costs to the bare essentials so they could focus on core technology to keep their space projects afloat.

I was not surprised to find some 30 research papers on Nasa. This indicated they were still in the race. As the Chinese saying goes: 'Know your enemy, know yourself.'

If I were in the United States negotiating with Nasa, I would be meeting engineers or officials directly involved. The Americans had a decentralised organisation model where people at the frontline of research made the important decisions. The Russians, however, were authoritarians - top bosses made all the decisions. This was the case with Mir, mankind's first orbiting space station, as it was directed by the Kremlin. I had designed forceps and other sub-zero gravity experimental tools. I was hoping they would interest the Americans, but had no luck.

At Star City, I was having a second shot. I was greeted by Alexander Alexandrov, one of Russia's most famous cosmonauts, and Oleg Tsygankov, often referred to as the Godfather of Mir. Tsygankov was in charge of science and engineering; Alexandrov, flight operations.

I had to pitch my inventions to them in less than 20 minutes. But at least they treated me with respect by taking me seriously.

Tsygankov was the best-dressed Russian I had met, wearing an immaculately pressed white shirt and an expensive leather jacket. He looked a bit like Goldfinger, the James Bond villain, without the white cat.

'What have you got that we haven't got?' asked Tsygankov, in an intimidating voice, speaking in Russian. I learned later at a chance Nasa meeting in Houston that Tsygankov spoke English well, but he would not speak a word of it now. My translator had to facilitate the exchange, but she told me something before the meeting that gave me confidence.

'They really like your inventions and also your courage to knock on our door,' she said.

Tsygankov went on: 'You are our first visitor from Hong Kong. A space forceps system? Come with me and I will show you. You see, you really need a sense of how cosmonauts operate with their gloves.' He showed me various cosmonaut gear.

He then called a Mir engineer over. The engineer ignored me but examined my prototypes intently for 30 minutes. I could tell he was interested. Then he and Tsygankov left and talked for a long time in another room.

'You can see what we have got here, maybe your forceps could play a role in exploration,' Tsygankov said after returning. 'We have found an application on board, precision soldering. We want four pairs and they will be delivered by Progress to replenish supplies in Mir.'

Progress was a space craft that took off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

What the Russians wanted were precision forceps based on the gripping design I had invented.

Only the Russians would conduct soldering aboard a space vehicle, using technology they have kept secret. The Americans would never allow such dangerous operations.The Russians were as good as their word.

We never signed any contract, but what Tsygankov promised he always delivered; his word

was his bond.

Next week: From Hunghom to Mir and beyond