The birth of the Lebanese space program

During the 1960s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in outer space. But there was another contestant in the race – the Lebanese Rocket Society, a science club from a university in Beirut. The Lebanese space program was not initially an official government-sponsored effort. It started in the 1960s with the Lebanese Rocket Society. The original society gained fame in Lebanon after a series of successful launches of Cedar rockets.

The Lebanese Rocket Society

The Lebanese Rocket Society was founded by Manoug Manougian in 1960. Manoug Manougian, which was born on April 29, 1935 in Jerusalem, was an Armenian scientist; he is considered the father of the Lebanese space program. He began at the age of 25 years old, in 1960, to teach at Haigazian University, a higher education institution founded in 1955 in Beirut, Lebanon as Haigazian College. He founded the Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS) in November 1960. “My vision was to explore space – Lebanon could have done that” said Manougian. Manougian’s passion for space began as a boy in the 1940s growing up in Jericho in the West Bank. Inspired by Jules Verne novels, he would climb the nearby Mount of Temptation and gaze at the night sky. At school he carved rockets onto his desk.

With a very limited budget, the society launched a series of rockets to increasing altitudes. It received funding from the Lebanese government and became the Lebanese Rocket Society. He and his students finally launched a suborbital rocket in 1963. The Cedar IV rocket, launched on Lebanese Independence Day (November 21, 1963) from Dbayeh, reached one hundred and forty kilometres and was featured on Lebanese stamps. “Here was tiny Lebanon, able to do what the rest of the Arab world hadn’t done” Manougian recently added.

The Lebanese Rocket Society consisted of a small group of students from the Haigazian University: “We were young kids, in our early 20s, doing something incredible”. The society developed into the wider Lebanese space program and it produced the first rockets of the Arab World, which were capable of suborbital flight. Early rockets were built from cardboard and bits of pipe. “To my surprise a number of students decided to join”, Manougian said. “I had no finances and there was little support for something like this. But I figured I could dip into my meagre salary and convince my wife that I could buy what I needed for the experiments”. Students were tasked with preparing chemicals for the rocket propellant. Everything for the project had to be built from scratch. Prototype rockets were tested on a farm in the mountains above Beirut. “The college came to watch one of the first launches”, recalls Manougian. “As soon as ignition took place, the rocket – which was hanging on a very primitive launcher – fell backwards and went up the mountain and landed outside a church”.

Manougian and his team of seven students refined their designs and rocket launches grew more ambitious. Each student was assigned a different aspect of the rocket and by April 1961, it could reach an altitude of one kilometre. The next rocket reached two kilometres. Word spread and the Lebanese military took an interest. They offered the services of Youssef Wehbé, a young military specialised in ballistics. “We were told that we needed a safe area to launch from” said Manougian. “They gave us an old artillery range and provided us with transportation to get up there”. Youssef Wehbé was able to source components from France and the U.S. that would otherwise have remained off-limits. He commandeered a military factory to allow the construction of more complex rockets. Manougian, however, still considered the project to be a purely scientific endeavour. “All our launches were attended by the public and the military”. “The military would always ask how far it would go if you were to place such and such a load in the nose cone, but my response was that this is not a military operation, it’s about teaching students science. That was the mission I had”.

By now, the Haigazian College Rocket Society had become a source of national pride. Manougian was invited to a reception held by Fuad Chehab, the President of the Lebanese Republic from 1958 to 1964, to be told that the Ministry of Education would provide limited funding for 1962 and 1963. It was renamed the Lebanese Rocket Society and the national emblem was adopted for its Cedar rocket programme. “We were launching three-stage rockets”. “They were no longer toys and could go way beyond the borders. We could reach the thermosphere”. “One time, I received a call from Fuad Chehab’s office, asking us to make sure we weren’t getting too close to Cyprus”. “So we moved slightly south which was a concern because then we were getting near Israel”. The Lebanese military soon realised the rockets could be used as a weapon.

It was at the time the Soviets and Americans were launching animals and humans into orbit”. “We’d been training a mouse called Mickey to withstand high acceleration. We thought we’d put it in the nose cone”. Manougian’s little club was regularly front page news in Lebanon. Every launch was accompanied by a glamorous party in Beirut. But as Manougian’s profile grew, so did the level of unwanted attention. He suspected that foreign agents were monitoring his work and found that papers in his office were being disturbed overnight. Other Arab countries were keen to use his skills for their own weapons programmes. Manougian was growing concerned at what his project risked turning into. But events that took place in July 1964 whilst he was abroad finally convinced him that the society was now out of his control. “When I came back from the U.S., I found out that one of the students had decided to prepare a rocket using the propellant”. In the ensuing fire, two students were severely injured.

In 1966, a rocket was launched into the Mediterranean, seemingly a safe distance from Cyprus. But the trajectory took it straight towards a British naval vessel monitoring the launch, and landed just a few meters short. It was the end. 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.

The Cedar rockets and the Lebanese space program

From 1960 to 1967, more than a dozen rockets called Cedar, still more powerful and rising to more than six hundred kilometres, were designed, produced and launched. The rockets were named after the cedar tree, Lebanon’s national emblem. On November 21, 1962 Cedar III, a three stages solid propellant rocket, was launched. It had a length of seven meters and a weight of one thousand and two hundred kilograms. The Cedar IV launched in 1963 was so successful that it was commemorated on a stamp. It reached a height of one hundred and fifty kilometres, putting it close to the altitude of satellites in low Earth orbit. The trials will cease as a result of international pressure.