Reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 August, 2006, 12:00am

He's famed in Hong Kong for helping design the city's 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

Only people who have dared to chase their dreams and visions - who have tried to achieve great and wonderful things - and yet failed truly understand defeat.

In this, there is no shame; but out of the ashes and heartaches rises the true human spirit.

Colin Pillinger, the 'father' of Beagle 2, came under intense public scrutiny and criticism in Britain and continental Europe after the Mars lander carrying the Hong Kong sampling tools crashed on the planet and lost all signal contact on Christmas Day 2003.

A decade of hard work vanished in a few seconds. Beagle 2 was estimated to have cost US$71.5 million to US$90 million. If that was a serious disappointment to our team, I could not begin to imagine what it must have been like for the great man himself.

There have been reports that he is no longer in good health, and I am truly sorry to hear that. One realises there is no second chance in planetary expedition.

I still remember vividly the first time I met Professor Pillinger back in the late 1990s. In order to secure space aboard Beagle 2, I knew we must have a workable prototype ready well before the British drafted their outline design of a lander for the Mars Express orbiter.

As soon as we had a device ready, I contacted Mark Sims, Professor Pillinger's project manager, who approved our project. He immediately arranged a meeting for us with his boss for a demonstration.

A distinguished planetary scientist, Professor Pillinger was a fellow of the British Royal Society and a Nasa consultant who helped analyse moon rocks during the Apollo programme in the 1970s.

His knowledge of Martian meteorites is unrivalled, and it was this which prompted him to come up with the idea of Beagle 2.

Some Brits are very down-to-earth, and Professor Pillinger literally so because he owned a dairy farm.

He greeted me outside his office. For such a famous and respected scientist, I did not expect such a tiny office, which was soon filled with people.

I showed him our prototypes. This, I believe, was the first working component developed for Beagle 2, which did not exist then, except as an idea that Dr Sims and Professor Pillinger had dreamed up during a drink in a bar.

Everyone present was interested, and started asking technical questions.

People ran for cover when I tried out a rind grinder that would erase rind on the surface of Martian rocks before chemical analysis. 'I want one,' said Professor Pillinger there and then.

In retrospect, I understand better why Professor Pillinger was so quick to accept us. I assumed at the time that the Brits already had a hold on the lander with the European Space Agency.

Actually, they had no contract and no guarantee that a lander would be taken to Mars. It was a good story to sell with a Hong Kong dentist and scientists being involved. And we already had something workable.

Despite being a farmer and an academic, Professor Pillinger had been a professional salesman in the way he promoted his project to the British government, raised private funds from companies and generally inspired the public with the first British mission to another planet.

Lutz Richter, a prominent scientist with the German space agency, DLR, said: 'Hong Kong's rock-corer and the Russians' mole are the most sexy tools that could beat Nasa for media coverage when they land.' A Russian-German team would build the sub-soil sampling mole.

My brother who lived in London, called excitedly when he heard on BBC radio that a Hong Kong dentist was involved in making drill bits for Beagle 2.

When I met Dr Sims and Professor Pillinger again a few months later, BBC reporters were after me for their TV programmes, Tomorrow's World and Horizon.

Then, the heavy rock samples started arriving in my Hong Kong office - sent by Professor Pillinger by DHL - for testing.

I am eternally grateful to him for giving me the chance of a lifetime.

Beagle 2 was an important step for the European Space Agency in designing a lander for future mission to Mars, such as the upcoming ExoMars project.