He is famed in Hong Kong for helping design its contribution to space discovery - tools for the Mir space station and European Mars missions. In our weekly series, Ng Tze-chuen recalls the highs and lows of 30 years working with celebrated scientists, battling bureaucracy ... and being tailed by spies No one can hope to do any meaningful work in archaeology in Egypt without first obtaining permission from Zahi Hawass. This is especially the case when it comes to exploring the Great Pyramid of Giza. Dr Hawass, the secretary-general of the country's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has absolute authority over the site. It was impossible to communicate with him because I was nobody, a dentist from Hong Kong. So in the autumn of 2003, after our work on the Martian space probe Beagle 2 was done, I went to Cairo to cold-call on Dr Hawass. My obsession with the pyramid started in late 2002 when I watched on television a live National Geographic broadcast of a robotic exploration, of a hidden door in the south shaft that extended from the famous Queen's Chamber inside the Great Pyramid. The robot was designed by the US firm iRobot. The rover crawled 65 metres and reached a limestone door that, incredibly, had copper handles, the only metal that has been found inside the ancient structure. The rover drilled a hole in the door and inserted a fibre-optic camera. Behind the first door, it found another stone block - possibly a second door. The whole world was intrigued. If we know the metallic contents of these 4,500-year-old handles, we could learn a lot about the metallurgy of the New Bronze Age. Determining the percentage of tin content would indicate the advancement in weaponry. I thought the micro-gripper, drills and corer we at Polytechnic University had developed for the Mir space station and Beagle 2 could help retrieve samples from behind the doors and pick up a broken pin that had fallen off one of the handles. There are still a lot of unexplored areas inside two shafts that extend from the King's Chamber, and two from the Queen's Chamber, to the surface. Perhaps the Pharaoh Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid, designed the shafts as conduits for his soul to reach the stars after his death. The world community of space exploration and planetary sampling is very small. Among this family of experts, the Egyptian-American Farouk El Baz is a legend. As a young man he was one of the top scientists in charge of the Apollo moon-landing missions. A specialist in remote sensors, he helped discover several funeral boats at the sides of the Great Pyramid believed to have been used to carry the body of Cheops across the Nile for burial. Ancient Egyptians lived on the east side of the Nile, but were buried in the west. Dr El Baz is a close associate of Dr Hawass. He is also an amiable man, as I came to find during visits to Boston University, where he is the director of the university's Centre for Remote Sensing. I went to the centre to meet him two months after the TV broadcast. Unfortunately, he was called at the last minute to Egypt, where he was a scientific adviser to President Hosni Mubarak. I did, however, meet iRobot and National Geographic scientists who took part in the 2002 shaft exploration. I laid out my prototypes and told them my ideas. They were sufficiently impressed to tell Dr El Baz about me and I finally met him in Boston in early 2003. Dr El Baz was receptive to my idea of using a mole deployed by a tether to send a small robotic insect with a pinhole camera inside the sealed chamber to film the back side of the door. He authorised me to start organising a team and even wrote a recommendation letter on my behalf. Unfortunately, I didn't think it ever reached Dr Hawass, and hence my cold-calling. I arrived in Cairo at 4am, I checked into the Marriott by 9am and was in a taxi to Dr Hawass' offices by 10am. It needed courage to knock on the door of the most powerful man in the field of Egyptian antiquities. I had to wait a long time outside his office, but in the end, he invited me into his study, shook my hand and asked his scientific assistant Fismal Esmael to take care of me. Esmael examined my work in micro mechanisms for Mars exploration. 'So, why do you want to come here?' he asked. 'I think I can help your country,' I replied. He smiled without making a comment. Now that I had a toehold in the shaft, so to speak, with Mr Esmael and Dr El Baz, I needed to organise a team willing to work for free and to get a final endorsement from Hawass.