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The Lebanese Rocket Society: Lebanon's Forgotten Space Program

posted on: Jun 9, 2021

The Lebanese Rocket Society: Lebanon's Forgotten Space Program
Group portrait taken before the launch of Cedar 3, 1962. Image from the Lebanese Rocket Society Archive, ©DR

By: Omar Mansour / Arab America Contributing Writer

During the 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union competed for space supremacy. But there was another contestant in the race – the Lebanese Rocket Society, a science club at the Haigaizian University, which went on to develop the first rockets in the Arab world and the Middle East, but by 1967, the project was halted, the society disbanded, and very little was heard again of their pioneering work, with much of the documentation relating to it lost or destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War.

This feat first began in 1960 when Manoug Manougian, then 25 years-old and recently arrived in Lebanon, took up a teaching post at Haigazian College, a small Armenian liberal arts college in Beirut, full of the descendants of the Armenian Genocide. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1935, he came to the US in 1956 where he studied at the University of Texas before coming to Lebanon. Taking charge of Haigazian’s Science Club in the fall semester of 1960, the young lecturer hastily tacked up notices on the student bulletin board that read: “Do You Want to be Part of the Haigazian College Rocket Society [HCRS]?” Seven undergraduates answered the initial call, and the makings of Lebanon’s space program were born.

Continuing its humble theme, the project began at the most basic of levels – tested on the family farm of one of the student team members, prototype rockets, which Manougian calls “baby rockets,” were made from cardboard and bits of pipe.

The Lebanese Rocket Society: Lebanon's Forgotten Space Program
Students testing prototype rockets, photo from The Lebanese Rocket Society film

Of course you cannot have a rocket without propellant…there were no propellants at that point, only the major powers had rockets and propellants, Lebanon did not have that. So, I looked at my students and told them we are going to start from scratch. Experimenting with different chemicals, the goal was to find what combination would allow for pressure inside a rocket”.

The Lebanese Rocket Society: Lebanon's Forgotten Space Program
Students tasked with preparing chemicals for the rocket propellant, BBC

As the students’ experiments progressed and the quality of their propellants improved, their rockets began to gain serious altitude. By early 1961, Manougian and his team built rockets that could travel nearly two miles. A year later, Cedar 2 — the rockets were named after the cedar tree, Lebanon’s national emblem — made it about 8.6 miles up. In a country unaccustomed to competing with the major powers, their successes were increasingly the talk of the town. “We were known as the rocket boys and treated as rock stars,” Manougian remembers. Word spread and the Lebanese military took an interest. They offered the services of Youssef Wehebe, a young lieutenant specialized in ballistics. With its newly acquired access to ballistic expertise and military testing grounds, the group, now renamed the Lebanese Rocket Society, finally had the necessary tools to go higher.

The Cedar IV launched in 1963 was so successful that it was commemorated on a stamp. It reached a height of 90 miles putting it close to the altitude of satellites in low-earth orbit.

The Lebanese Rocket Society: Lebanon's Forgotten Space Program
Lebanese stamps celebrated the Cedar rocket program

Not much longer after this feat, a combination of military intrigue and international pressure derailed the project. They had almost struck a British naval cruiser in the Mediterranean in 1966, as well as routinely upsetting the authorities in Cyprus, who were unhappy at the number of rockets strafing their territory . Then, after the leader of another Arab country discreetly offered the team significant riches to continue their work in the service of his government (Manougian won’t say which one), the professor decided enough was enough. “Clearly, the implications were that we convert our scientific experimentation to a military one,” Manougian says. In Lebanon too, “the military’s interest in weaponizing the rockets made it clear to me that it was time to end the project and return to the US for further studies.”

The Lebanese Rocket Society: Lebanon's Forgotten Space Program
Launch site in Dbayeh overlooking the Mediterranean, BBC

Lebanon was then forced to shut down the program. According to Manougian, “Lebanon was asked not to continue the launchings of the rockets. According to some sources that contacted me on this, I was told that France ‘indicated’ that Lebanon should stop launching rockets”.

Why would France have exerted pressure on Lebanon to halt the project? Among others, the Israelis. Already the Israelis had been sabotaging Egyptian military science endeavors and would have had a keen intertest in shutting down any possible future threat to their air power. The French – Israeli relationship was at its peak at this time. France was the one to suggest a joint French-UK-Israeli invasion of Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In exchange, France gifted Israel with a nuclear reactor, making Israel one of the few nuclear superpowers of today. In the 1967 war, almost the entirety of the Israeli air force flew French aircrafts. The 1967 war sealed the final nail in the coffin of the program.

Memories of the Lebanese Rocket Society quickly faded and archive material was lost during the country’s civil war. Many of the students left to work overseas. It has only been since the release of a documentary film, the Lebanese Rocket Society, directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige that interest in Manougian’s exploits has been revived – and today he is keen that history notes the small part Lebanon played in the space race.

Manoug states “I believe the rocket society encouraged students to pursue science and from that point of view it was a success.” He went on to say, “Would I have liked to reach the moon? Being realistic, I could not have done anymore – Lebanon didn’t have the finances. But they could have pursued science and space exploration. They could have put satellites in orbit. Yes, it was a tiny country, but Lebanon could have done it.”

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