Reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 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

I was in the wrong job and in the wrong place, chasing a pipe dream. Being a dentist helped pay for my real passion - design of precision instruments for use in space vehicles, but Hong Kong was, and still is, no place for someone interested in space exploration.

By 1994, I had designed a series of experimental tools I was convinced overseas space agencies would find useful, yet up to then, there had been no taker. I needed highly skilled engineers and precision mechanics to turn my ideas into prototypes. But where could you find such people in a practical, money-driven place like Hong Kong? I would have to put together a crack team willing to work for glory alone, that is, for free ... Mission Impossible?

I first went to an out-of-the-way machinist shop in Hunghom. The guy looked at me like I had just arrived from outer space when I told him what I wanted to do. But at least he was kind enough to point me in the right direction. 'You need very hi-tech machinery for this kind of job. Find Big-Head Yung and Godfather Chris,' he told me.

They turned out to be Yung Kai-leung, who was teaching engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic, and Chris Wong Ho-ching, head of the university's industrial centre.

The size of Dr Yung's head, and presumably his brain, was impressive, hence his affectionate nickname. He also turned out to be a college buddy of my elder brother when they were engineering students at Imperial College, in London.

I still remember Dr Yung's surprised and sceptical look when I told him about my space designs. Together, we approached Chris Wong, whom people called Godfather because he was and still is the big boss at the centre, probably the best homegrown precision engineering and machinery shop in Hong Kong.

Chris had a team of brilliant technicians, people like precision-machine-maker Yu Chun-ho and software engineer Chan Chiu-cheung, technologist So Kin-tak and several talented specialists.

Mr Yu has an understanding of the word 'precision' very different from us mortals - his tolerance for accuracy was measured in microns, as in the unit of measurement for microelectronics. Mr Chan, a temperamental artist, drew computer drafts of our designs that were art fit for a museum.

We still needed one more person, someone with a high profile, respected for his scientific achievements, to lend credibility to our project. I wrote to physics Nobel laureate Yang Chen-ning, who held a professorship at Chinese University. He wrote back and said he would be happy to serve as our adviser.

Chris liked to call his shop 'the dream factory' and his gang had experience working on non-conventional industrial projects. I came out of nowhere and brought him the biggest dream of all - to take part in interplanetary exploration. Sure, his appetite was whetted, but he also thought I was crazy to think of designing tools for shuttles, space stations and Mars.

At one meeting, one of the team asked a good question. 'Are you sure you can take us to the stars?' I promised I would take them to Mars, or at least their instruments.

I had no idea about how and when I could achieve that. Since I couldn't offer money, I had to convince the team of the intrinsic worth of our project, and the prestige we would earn as the first Hong Kong team, perhaps even the first Chinese group, building tools to touch the soil of another planet.

To keep the team motivated, I often had to exaggerate: a non-committal reply from a space agency became an official answer; an expression of interest became a promise. I had to give my people hope. I imposed a tight work schedule. I delivered finished prototypes to overseas space scientists roughly every four months. The trick was to beat competitors from other countries.

Within our team there were conflicts and crashes, egos and all. It was frustrating to work so hard yet get nowhere. I made them a promise their work would not be in vain - and I would keep it. The use of our specially designed forceps aboard Mir, the Russian space station, was our first triumph, but it would be followed by an even greater one - territorial-sampling tools, custom-made in Chris' shop, for use on Mars.

Next week: From Mir to Mars