“Yes, it was a tiny country, but Lebanon could have done it.”
Space Exploration and the Middle East
February has been a big month for space exploration. NASA’s Perseverance rover – nicknamed “Percy” – successfully landed on Mars on the 18th of this month, and the UAE’s Hope probe entered Mars’ orbit earlier on the 9th. With the latter achievement, the Emirates Mars Mission counts as one of only five space programs to have reached the Red Planet – the other four include launches by NASA, Russia, the European Space Agency, and India. This has shined a light on the UAE’s trailblazing initiative in the Arab World and the Middle East. Indeed, this is something the region can be proud of.
Nevertheless, and while we celebrate this achievement, it is important to remember that the UAE was actually not the first country in the region to have shown ambition for space exploration. It was, in fact, Lebanon that pioneered space research by designing, producing and launching the very first rockets in the Arab world. And it did this at the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960’s.
The Lebanese Rocket Society: From Science Club to National Project
Born in Jerusalem, to an Armenian family, Manoug Manougian developed an interest in space and rockets at a very young age. He won a scholarship to study Mathematics at the University of Texas, and shortly after graduating with his degree, he was offered a position at Haigazian College (today’s Haigazian University) in Beirut to teach Maths and Physics. He was also made faculty advisor for the science club, which he rebranded as the Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS). A total of six students initially signed up and the society was officially founded in November 1960. All members, including their instructor, Manoug, were in their early twenties.
The goals of the HCRS were purely scientific and educational. The Society offered an opportunity to actively engage in the global scientific endeavours of the time, and through applied learning, Manoug hoped to nurture in his students a passion for the fields of science and technology.
The Society had to make do with limited means and resources. Manoug often dipped into his personal salary to secure the chemicals and material needed to make rockets. The team first started out with “baby rockets”, as Manoug calls them, which did not exceed half a meter in length. Initial launches were made on a student’s family farm in the Lebanese mountains, and then in a pine forest northeast of Beirut. After a number of trials, these baby rockets eventually flew some distance. With continued experimentation, the rockets grew larger and more effective. In April 1961, the entire student body of Haigazian College drove up to the launching site to witness the flight of the newest rocket. The rocket was aimed to be launched across an unpopulated valley, but the primitive launcher the Society was using fell backwards upon ignition and the rocket flew in the opposite direction. It landed outside the entrance to a church at the top of the mountains, without causing any damages. Despite the mishap, Manoug calculated that the rocket had reached about a kilometer in altitude, which made it the first locally produced modern rocket to be launched in the Middle East.
An event such as this could not go unnoticed, and the following day Manoug was contacted by the Lebanese Army. The latter required that future launches be carried out under secure and more controlled conditions. A young Lieutenant Youssef Wehbé, also in his 20’s, was assigned to assist the science club in his role as a ballistics expert. The rocket launches continued at the military’s artillery range on Mount Sannine before moving to the coastal site of Dbayyeh. With this joint collaboration, the rockets developed in complexity and size. Two-stage and then three-stage rockets were produced, each flying higher and further than the ones before.
News of the rocket project quickly spread in Lebanon, and it soon became a source of national pride. President Fouad Chehab showed open support for the HCRS and announced at a reception for the Society, that the Ministry of Education would be providing two grants for the years 1962 and 1963 to assist its scientific efforts. With this widespread support and national involvement, the HCRS was renamed the Lebanese Rocket Society, and Haigazian College was nicknamed “Rocket College”. Since the cedar tree is Lebanon’s national emblem, all rockets were called Cedar Rockets (or “Arz”, in Arabic). Launches soon after became public events and drew hundreds of spectators who watched the rockets take off towards the Mediterranean Sea.
Cedar rockets were launched for the Lebanese Independence Day on November 22, in both 1963 and 1964. The Cedar III and Cedar IV rockets were 7 meters long, weighed 1270 kg and were capable of reaching an estimated 325 km in altitude while covering a range of approximately 1000 km. The rockets were paraded through Beirut’s streets and commemorative postage stamps were issued in those two years.
The final rocket launch by the Lebanese Rocket Society took place in 1966. The rocket, Cedar VIII, was launched from Dbayyeh above the Mediterranean and successfully breached the internationally accepted frontier of space, the Kármán line. However, it landed very close to Cyprus, and narrowly missed a British naval cruiser stationed in Cypriot waters and monitoring the Lebanese launch. The rockets the Society was producing had now reached a whole new level, which drew further international attention. One final Lebanese rocket, Cedar X, was launched by the military in 1967. The Lebanese Rocket program was shut down permanently after that.
* Manoug Manougian only held a Bachelor’s degree when he established and led the HCRS. He earned his Master’s degree during the course of the LRS project, and pursued his doctorate upon leaving Lebanon in 1966.
* Starting 1962, radio transmitters were installed in the cone heads of the rockets that broadcast the message “Long live Lebanon”. This is akin to the American Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, launched in 1977, that carried gold-plated copper records containing the sounds of life on earth.
* Similar to how the Soviets and Americans were launching animals into orbit, the LRS trained a mouse called Mickey to withstand high acceleration. They planned on placing him in the nose cone for his own “space travel”. Manoug asked his wife to make a small parachute for Mickey’s safe landing. Once she understood what the parachute was for, she categorically refused and Mickey never got to be the astronaut he was temporarily destined to be.
Images of the LRS (source: M. Manougian, after FLArmenians, Smithsonian Magazine, BBC, and VICE): (1) M. Manougian (far right) with his students; (2) Members of the LRS, including the military personnel, in front of Cedar III rocket; (3) Cedar VI rocket being prepared for launch at Dbayyeh; (4) Cedar II rocket, also at Dbayyeh; (5) Launching of Cedar II-C over the Mediterranean in 1962; (6) Commemorative stamps issued on the 21st anniversary of Lebanese Independence in 1964, launch of Cedar IV.
Competing with the Big Boys
What the Lebanese Rocket Society achieved between 1960 and 1966 is truly remarkable and awe-inspiring. Haigazian College was a young college, established only five years prior to the creation of the Rocket Society. The college had a small student body as well as limited financial resources to undertake such ambitious projects. Yet, it had a determined and passionate instructor, and eager students who were willing to dream big and to try something new.
The 1960’s space race was also mainly restricted between the USA and the USSR, yet here was tiny Lebanon trying to carve a place of its own in the global space programs. And it came really close in such a short period. The first successful launch of a modern rocket able to reach space took place in Germany in 1942; the first Earth orbiting satellite in history, Sputnik 1, was launched by the USSR in 1957; Explorer 1 was the first American satellite to be sent, in 1958; and Yuri Gagarin became the first man to reach space in 1961. So for Lebanon to be able to produce a rocket capable of reaching low earth orbit with limited human, financial and technological resources compared to the world’s superpowers, is something to be extremely proud of. It is also worth remembering that the Lebanese contingent was comprised primarily of undergraduate students and not of prominent scientists.
Realistically speaking, Lebanon would of course not have been able to reach the scale executed by the larger countries, but the fact that it managed to produce the rockets that it did, speaks volumes to the potential the local space program held had it been allowed to continue.
Lebanon did not willingly abandon its space project, but was pressured to do so. The LRS garnered not only local interest, but also caught international attention. “Cultural attachés” at foreign embassies were closely observing the launches, and Manoug Manougian’s office at Haigazian College was regularly broken into and his papers rummaged through.
The fact that the rockets had a long range concerned neighboring countries and foreign powers, none of which wanted Lebanon to potentially use its scientific advancements for military purposes. In 1967, the governments of the United States, Great Britain and France advised Lebanon to shut down its space program.
Unrealized Potential and Forgotten History
The LRS started out as a scientific project and remained very much so until it was forcibly shut down. Did the Lebanese military have interest in the science generated from its research to potentially develop missiles as well? Yes, it did. And that remained a point of contention with Manoug Manougian who was categorically against transforming the space program into a military one. Despite the fact that the project remained purely scientific and educational, geopolitics nevertheless dictated the fate of this endeavour.
Sure, the science behind the rockets could have been used to create military missiles. But in the process of deterring Lebanon from potentially developing weapons for its army, meaningful scientific research in the country was also crushed. The LRS also represented a national project – a positive movement that citizens collectively rallied around and the government supported. On all levels, the LRS promised local progress and development.
Most members of the LRS eventually emigrated, each pursuing successful careers abroad, including at NASA. Manoug Manougian also left Lebanon for the United States in 1966, where he continued teaching. In 2011, a new generation of students at the University of South Florida, learning of the LRS, asked Manoug to head their own rocket society. True to his early convictions, Manoug agreed, on condition that his students adopt a new and innovative approach towards rocketry research that goes beyond what the LRS had already achieved decades earlier. The Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry (SOAR) was thereby created that explores new technologies to aid the advancement of space exploration.
Had matters panned out differently, SOAR could have been based in another university in Lebanon. A victim of international interference, as well as of local circumstances, Lebanon today is a long way from re-initiating any such project. What makes the situation more painful is the fact that this brilliant chapter in Lebanese history was entirely forgotten for almost fifty years. It is thanks to directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige that the Lebanese Rocket Society was brought back to light in 2013. Their efforts were largely supported by Manoug Manougian, who had the foresight to preserve all archival footage, photographs and records of the LRS, knowing full well that this history had to be documented and transmitted to future generations.
Manoug and his students believed that it was only through education and research that peace and stability could be achieved. That group of young scientists in the 1960’s is no different from the emerging local researchers today. Both have dreams and aspirations, and the staple of youth: the eagerness to take risks. As Manoug put it, “Lebanon was a tiny country, but it could have done it”. Perhaps it will again someday.
The Lebanese Rocket Society. 2013. Documentary film by Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige.
Chad, S. 2013. The Forgotten Apogee of Lebanese Rocketry. Florida Armenians. https://flarmenians.com/2013/05/24/the-forgotten-apogee-of-lebanese-rocketry/
Hadjithomas, J. & K. Joreige. 2013. On the Lebanese Rocket Society. E-Flux Journal no. 43. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/43/60187/on-the-lebanese-rocket-society/
Hooper, R. 2013. Lebanon’s Forgotten Space Program. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24735423
Schwartzstein, P. 2016. The Bizarre Tale of the Middle East’s First Space Program. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/bizarre-tale-middle-easts-first-space-program-180960808/
Haidostian, P. August 2020 interview in Rising Up to the Challenge of Education During Difficult Times. Business Life. http://www.haigazian.edu.lb/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Rising-Up-to-the-Challenge-of-Education-During-Difficult-Times.pdf
Aqrabawi, R. 2013. Lebanon’s Forgotten Space Race: In 1961, Manoug Manougian Aimed the Middle East at the Stars. VICE News. https://www.vice.com/en/article/pggn4y/lebanons-forgotten-space-race-in-1961-manoug-manougian-aimed-the-middle-east-at-the-stars
Aqrabawi, R. 2013. A Photo History of Lebanon’s Unremembered Space Race. VICE News. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qkkyg5/a-photo-history-of-lebanons-unremembered-space-race-1
Online Interviews & Documentary Snippets:
BBC News – Arabic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxXxZMAbj0M
Documentary Trailer: (EN) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kas41F-MMkE ; (AR) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6deAidrrRJY&t ; (FR) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGf36A_NYD8
Lebanese TV Show Kalam el Nas Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OUmi4EBeFI&t
CivilNet Interview with current Haigazian President Paul Haidostian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6deAidrrRJY&t