THE new consultant project manager at the New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office (NAPCO) is a former astronaut with the distinction of having been the first civil engineer to travel into space. Dr James van Hoften, a senior vice-president with International Bechtel, took over the key airport core programme projects about six weeks ago, succeeding Dr Hank Townsend. The combination of Dr van Hoften's background in aviation, civil engineering and project management experience contributed to his selection for the job. During an interview at his NAPCO office in Hongkong, Dr van Hoften revealed a view of planet earth that few have had the opportunity to see. ''As you orbit the earth from 300 miles in space, you get to see a much bigger picture, a global perspective. ''You see continents without borders. All the things that seem so important to the people on the ground are transparent from space,'' he said. Prior to coming to Hongkong, Dr van Hoften was involved in the US Government side of Bechtel, and managed aerospace and defence business, which specialised in the design and construction of major infrastructure projects for the department of defence, NASA, and the State Department. He recalled the recently completed ''LC 40'' as one of their biggest challenges. The project involved the design and construction of an entire launch complex in 24 months with an unusual ''cosmic deadline''. ''We had to complete the project by October of 1992 for the launch of the Mars Observer for NASA. ''Planetary alignment only offers launch opportunities for 30 days every two years, so any slip outside the launch window would cause an expensive delay.'' The project was completed on time and the space vehicle was successfully launched and is on its way to Mars. Born in Fresno, California, in 1944, Dr van Hoften grew up in the San Francisco area and attended the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1966 and went on to graduate school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. While at Berkeley, Dr van Hoften got his first taste of engineering, working during summers and part-time as a junior engineer at the California Bay Toll Crossings. He worked on the preliminary design of the proposed Southern Crossing, a bridge about the size of the Tsing Ma bridge. From Colorado, Dr van Hoften entered the US Navy, where he trained as a carrier pilot and eventually made two cruises to Southeast Asia aboard the USS Ranger, flying F-4 aircraft. During this period, Dr van Hoften acquired the nickname ''Ox'', which has stuck to him to this day. Cont'd on Page 2, Col 6 Cont'd from Page 1 Also during this period, he made his first visits to Hongkong. In 1976, following the completion of his PhD, he became a professor of civil engineering at the University of Houston, teaching civil engineering and advanced courses in wave mechanics. In 1978, Dr van Hoften applied and was accepted into the NASA astronaut programme as the first of the new group of Space Shuttle astronauts. He spent the next eight years in Houston and, ultimately, flew on two shuttle missions. In 1984, aboard the Challenger, Dr van Hoften and crew mate Mr George Nelson performed the first in-flight satellite repair of the ailing Solar Max satellite, during two extended space walks. Later in 1985, Dr van Hoften flew aboard the Discovery and, in two more space walks, along with Mr Bill Fisher, repaired the Leasat which had failed to operate when deployed by the shuttle four months earlier. Searching for a way to contribute to the profession he had begun, Dr van Hoften joined Bechtel in San Francisco, a company he said was ''no stranger to the building of new frontiers''. Speaking about his role at NAPCO, Dr van Hoften said: ''I am excited and somewhat awed by the undertaking of the scope of the Airport Core Programmes. ''Completing these projects on time, and within budget, is an impressive challenge. ''The management team that has been formed at NAPCO is a unique blend of the Hongkong Government and Bechtel people with a vast array of mega-project management experience and a 'can-do' spirit. ''I look forward to being part of such a historic engineering first. ''I have loved Hongkong since my fist visit in 1972. ''On both my shuttle flights, I kept looking for an opportunity to get the perfect picture of Hongkong from space. ''After about 200 to 300 orbits, however, all I could see was southern China bathed in clouds. ''It wasn't until 1985 that some lucky shuttle crew member got this great shot of the Pearl River Delta,'' he said. Dr van Hoften and his wife, Vallarie, live in Tai Tam with two of their daughters, who are enrolled in Hongkong International School. Their eldest daughter is a senior at the University of Oregon. In his spare time, Dr van Hoften enjoys golf, skiing, and running.