Reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 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

Sometime in 1997, the two top bosses in charge of the Russian Mir space station abruptly cancelled a trip to Hong Kong; there had been a docking incident in which a space vehicle had smashed into Mir.

Until then, Alexander Alexandrov and Oleg Tsygankov thought they had time to spare away from their charge, mankind's first orbiting station in space.

They were well-satisfied with the four sets of custom-made space forceps we had designed and manufactured for Mir cosmonauts, and had agreed to inspect our latest work at the Polytechnic University. One of the most pleasant faxes I ever received was from Mr Alexandrov, who informed me in 1995 that our equipment had been stowed aboard Progress, a supply space vehicle, on its way to Mir.

The Hong Kong-made tools were the first of their kind to be integrated into an international space mission. Russian cosmonauts used them to perform various experiments, most of which had been kept secret, even to this day.

Then, in 1997, the university had sponsored a trip for the two great Russians, hoping this might further cement scientific collaboration.

The Russians were kind enough to make a minute-long camera recording showing a cosmonaut performing an experiment with our forceps. We subsequently showed it to the Hong Kong media and received extensive coverage. It served as proof for our team and others that our work over the years had not been wasted - our equipment, as far as we know, were the first space tools entirely designed and made in Hong Kong.

Then came the Mir accident. Progress, used to deliver equipment and food to Mir cosmonauts and return their garbage, had smashed into the station, causing one module to depressurise and a power failure. We did not know until much later that our tools would play a small but significant role in the accident.

To repair some of the damage, the Russians used our forceps to do some soldering. This was highly dangerous because a single spark could cause a fire. However, the Russians were clearly desperate. The forceps were useful to solder some electronic components and wirings, but I was never briefed in any detail about the repair mission. The Russians succeeded, restoring power and re-pressurising the affected module. Seeing how our tools had been extensively used, our appetite was whetted.

By this time, our work was attracting media attention, and some of our designs were put on display counters at the university. I remember what one visitor said of our space forceps: 'What's the big deal? It's just a forceps.'

His negative comment somewhat disappointed me but, on reflection, I realised we should aim higher, and design even more sophisticated tools if we wanted to stay in the game.

We wanted, and were ready for, a new and even more challenging task. So, one day I met my partners and told them we should be aiming beyond Mir - we should go for Mars.

I have always been fascinated by exobiology, the study of the possibility of extraterrestrial life forms. Scientists believe Mars is the only planet in our solar system where life is, or was once, possible before it lost its atmosphere

An exobiological agenda would need to collect surface territorial samples. This would be our opening.

'Mars! You are getting crazier by the day!' one of them blurted out.

The team thought this was overly ambitious and a pie-in-the-sky idea. But I could sense they were interested, and actually didn't need much convincing.

'Sure, let's do it,' someone said. I couldn't remember who, but he spoke for the whole Polytechnic University team.

While watching the Mir film clip, I noticed the cosmonaut was using the forceps much like any foreigners learning to use chopsticks.

What we had in mind was a versatile precision instrument that could clear away surface rind, drill inside rocks, and when separated, hold a small volume of rock powder like pincers. It would work as both forceps and drill at the end of a robotic arm.

Now, all we needed to do was find which international space agency was planning a mission to Mars, and to catch a ride.