If Dr Ng Tze-chuen had known about the years of frustration and heartache ahead, he might have switched channels or just turned off the TV. But a gripping idea came to him one summer night in 1992 while watching the evening news, and he could not get it out of his head. The TV footage was showing a hapless space shuttle astronaut clumsily performing experiments in zero gravity. 'I leapt off the sofa while watching the space shuttle on the news,' the 45-year-old inventor recalled. 'Space shuttle engineers took care of every detail, but they seemed to have neglected to provide efficient tools for astronauts to work with. 'Astronauts and objects were floating in weightlessness. A logical solution was to design a persistent gripping forceps system, capable of performing different tasks but easy to use.' A dentist by profession and precision instrument designer by calling, Dr Ng had already designed and patented a new surgical forceps for the German medical instrument manufacturer Aesculap. He called it the 'Holinser', combining the words holder and inserter. Now his life-long interests in space travel and instrument design came together in one inspired moment. From the humble medical instrument, he would design the world's first complete tool kit that would take care of all possible needs and eventualities for experiments in space. The end product would be an intricate mechanical system of more than 70 interconnected parts consisting of stainless-steel claws, forceps and shanks, with more than 100 combinations. 'The forceps system caters to any experimental situation from rodent dissection to precision soldering under any gravity condition,' Dr Ng said. Designing the set was the fun part, although the work would ultimately take three years. Finding someone to build it and winning acceptance from international space agencies was the tough bit. That would take more than 50 meetings and 20 trips to Russia, western Europe and the United States. 'A space research group started by someone from a non-engineering background was viewed as a big joke,' Dr Ng said. 'It was always difficult to convince eminent research groups that original thinking could possibly occur outside of their 'private hunting ground'. 'I began my search in a roadside mechanical workshop in a run-down section of Hunghom. I still remember trying to persuade, even beg, a mechanic to build the prototypes, while cat-sized rats brushed my legs and scuttled past. His blank stare gave me a foretaste of the kind of reaction I would be getting for many years.' Not many people have the chance to explore space. It is even rarer to find someone who has spent years exploring the labyrinthine bureaucracies and hierarchies of international space agencies to gain a foothold in their door. Dr Ng said: 'In Houston, San Francisco and Moscow, the initial comments were always the same: 'What is really on your mind?' 'I can't find any application for your instruments, sorry.' 'What have you got that we haven't got already?' 'I still remember a NASA [America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration] scientist coming in with his eyes fixed at the 10 o'clock position. 'I am busy. I'm going to give you exactly 10 minutes to explain your design,' he said. 'All this took place in a motel not far from the Ames Space Research Centre in San Jose, so we wouldn't embarrass him at work.' It did not take long before Dr Ng realised he needed backing from a scientific heavyweight as well as specialists who could make high-quality prototypes for demonstrations to space scientists and engineers. He approached the 1957 Nobel Prize winner in physics Yang Chen-ning, who holds a visiting professorship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to supervise his project. 'Being a fellow Chinese, he was very sympathetic, and he recognised the usefulness of our project,' Dr Ng said. He persuaded Polytechnic University engineers Yung Kai-leung, Yu Chun-ho and the director of the university's Industrial Centre, Chris Wong Ho-ching, along with former University of Science and Technology engineer Chan Chiu-cheung, to make the prototypes. Dr Ng's luck soon took a better turn, after corresponding with the Russian Space Agency for some time. 'At the beginning, we couldn't even find the agency's address. Letters to the embassy went unanswered.' But a fax came one day in 1994 from the agency's bosses, Dr Alexandre Alexandrov and Dr Oleg Tsygankov, asking for a meeting in Moscow. Their first meeting took place in the dead of the Russian winter. According to Dr Ng, it was more like a scene out of a John le Carre spy novel than a conference among scientists. 'A government car came to whisk me off to our meeting in Star City, the hub of Russian space research about an hour's drive from Moscow,' he said. 'Throughout I was accompanied by a man in a raincoat, no doubt someone from the secret service, watching my every move. 'The roads along the way were muddy and full of holes. Even at the city, the caricature of the broken lift and windows was all too true. The car stopped in front of a double iron gate and both car doors opened simultaneously and I was asked out. I felt a bit depressed. 'But once I was led inside, I was in a technological paradise. All the latest and most advanced communications equipment was there. It was like something from Star Wars.' After two years of fruitless search, Dr Ng finally came face-to-face with the two great men of space exploration. 'It was a real cultural shock. I was a nobody from Hong Kong, and here they were, Alexandrov and Tsygankov, two of the most respected and powerful people in charge of the Mir Space Station.' Their first words were disappointing, again asking what Dr Ng could possibly offer one of the foremost space research institutes in the world. 'The Russians are a very proud people. They won't say outright they like or need your work. But they keep their word once they have made a promise,' Dr Ng said. 'Tsygankov called in an engineer. They looked over my designs for half an hour. And there and then, they ordered four pairs of forceps.' The Russians would eventually use them for precision soldering under zero gravity aboard Mir in late 1995, an industrial technique they have perfected and kept secret even now. With the Russians' successful use of the Holinser kit aboard Mir, Dr Ng and his Polytechnic University team were beginning to establish a niche for themselves in international space research. All the major space agencies including NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) involved in building the International Space Station (ISS) have placed orders for different components of the forceps kit, to be delivered to the station by space shuttles. The ISS, under construction by space agencies from 13 countries, is expected to be completed by 2002. It will replace Mir as the only permanent space station above Earth. Scientists there will carry out research on advanced industrial materials, communications technology and medical experiments, in conditions impossible to obtain on Earth. But Dr Ng has set his sight beyond the ISS. 'I think we have a date with Mars,' he said. The turning point came in July last year when the Hong Kong team's new exploration claws for collecting soil samples were tested in Cologne at the German Space Agency. The agency is involved in the ESA's unmanned Mars Express project, scheduled for take-off in 2003. A paper on the new design was presented in October at the ESA's 7th European Space Mechanism and Tribiology Symposium. Participants there acknowledged the design was the best of its kind, according to Dr Ng. 'I honestly believe most researchers have spent enormous amounts in developing sophisticated robotic arms, while forgetting about the claws, the most vital part for gripping,' he said. The finger-sized claws, known ominously as micro-end effectors, are designed to attach to robotic arms. They will automatically adapt to the shape and size of different objects to achieve a firm grip. When pressed together, each claw can function as a drill. Several versions have been developed for Mars Express to collect and place soil and rock samples in a high-temperature oven for chemical analysis, with the results beamed back to Earth. Two European research teams are now competing to win the ESA contract to build a remote-controlled rover to explore Mars on the ground. Both have accepted the claws as an integral part of the rover's soil exploration system. 'We never expected we would get to the stage where international space agencies would be using our tools. We just thought the project would be good for local product development,' team-member Dr Wong said. 'But now our project has helped to raise the international profile of Hong Kong science.' But Dr Ng cautioned against being too hopeful. 'Mars Express has been postponed several times in the 90s, and we are always facing the possibility of more delay.' Delay or not, it looks likely that sometime in the next century, tools designed and built by Dr Ng and his Polytechnic University team will land on Mars, 55 million kilometres from Earth. Their equipment will help scientists probe the origin of the solar system and our own planet. 'When I was a kid, I loved to look up into the night sky, and I imagined myself plucking the stars out of the dark void,' Dr Ng said. 'Perhaps my end-effectors will do it for me.'