Hong Kong engineers who built exploration tools for a European space probe now on its way to Mars had two requests for funding rejected by the government, it was revealed yesterday. The news comes days after the mainland successfully sent astronaut Yang Liwei into space, sparking public interest in space exploration in Hong Kong and across the country. Last week, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa sent a congratulatory message to the central government, saying all Hong Kong residents were proud of the nation's achievement. The European Mars Express was launched in June, carrying rock and soil sampling tools made by engineers at Polytechnic University. 'We worked day and night on the Martian project [since 1997] on our own,' said the university's industrial centre director, Chris Wong Ho-ching, on Commercial Radio's Teacup in a Storm yesterday. 'We have called press conferences and organised exhibits. Certainly the government knew what we were doing but maybe it was too busy to bother with us.' According to Yung Kai-Leung, a systems engineer who is also part of the team, the group filed two funding applications, for more than $1 million, between 1999 and 2000 to the University Grants Committee and the government's $5 billion innovation and technology fund. Both were rejected on the grounds that the tools had no local industrial or commercial use. Professor Yung told the South China Morning Post yesterday: 'I hope the government will widen financial support for research projects that may not have immediate local commercial and industrial benefits but which could help to raise Hong Kong's scientific profile. Whether this is a realistic hope in light of renewed public interest in space exploration, I don't know.' Last-minute internal funding from the university arrived early this year when the team had finished developing the sampling devices for the Mars mission. The university team made a thumb-sized, 370g corer-drill and a 'spoon' for use on the spacecraft. Scheduled to land on Mars on Christmas Day, it will take soil and rock samples in search of evidence for the existence of life. The government's Innovation and Technology Commission, which runs the $5 billion fund, would not comment on the Mars project. The University Grants Committee was unavailable.