In the 1960s, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for space supremacy, a group of Lebanese college students sent a homemade rocket into the thermosphere. Led by Dr. Manoug Manougian, the Lebanese Rocket Society (LRS) of Beirut’s Haigazian College propelled the small nation into a space race dominated by a few superpowers.
The momentous launch of the LRS’s Cedar rockets has been wiped out of Lebanon’s cultural memory lately in lieu of the country’s more violent political history. In 1967, when the Six-Day War erupted in Lebanon, the LRS was on a mission that could not only alter the state of science in the country but also drastically grow Lebanon’s political power.
This was the case until a group of Lebanese documentary film makers came across a postage stamp honouring the rocket and revisited the work of Dr. Manougian and his students in a 2012 film, called “The Lebanese Rocket Society.”
The Politic’s Mehr Nadeem spoke with Dr. Manougian at his office at the University of South Florida, where he a Professor of Mathematics and Director of the STEM Education Center. He also serves as faculty advisor to the university’s student organization, the Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry (SOAR).
The Politic: How did the rocket project start?
Manoug Manougian: After receiving a my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin I was hired to teach mathematics and Physics at an Armenian College in Beirut, Lebanon. The 1960s witnessed intense competition between America and the Soviet Union for control of space. That was also an opportune time for me to take advantage of current events, and excite my students about research in rocketry while at the same time teach them about the interconnectedness of math, science and engineering. As faculty advisor to the science club, I changed the name “science club” to the “Haigazian College Rocket Society” (HCRS). Six freshman students joined the society. They were Simon Aprahamian, Hrair Kelechian, Garabed Basmadjian, Hampar Karaguezian, Michael Ladah, and John Tilkian. Our first obstacle was the lack of funds. Second, we had to learn how to build rockets from scratch. The obstacles notwithstanding, within a couple of months, we managed to produce a propellent and after several trials we were ready to launch into the Lebanese sky.
TP: What was it like working with these students of the club?
MM: They were truly excited about the project. They spent a lot of time working with me trying to achieve our goals. Even those that were not members of the society, other students of this liberal arts Armenian college, helped us out. I still remember the day when I saw the daughter of the president of the college coming out of the lab with propellant powder covering her arms. And so, it became a college-wide project.
TP: What was the reaction of the public and the government in Lebanon to the successes of the Rocket Society?
MM: First came three-foot long rockets launched in the Lebanese mountains that rose to an altitude to about one to two miles. Member and nonmember students would watch the launchings, and then climb the mountains to retrieve the spent rockets. After several launchings, the Lebanese government was concerned about safety and security. They assigned Captain Youssef Wehbe to supervise our activities. We were given access to a beautiful and safe launching site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
In about a year, after experimenting with new propellants, we constructed a two-stage rocket, called HCRS-2 that had a range of about 10 miles. Using simple physics, we devised a system that separated the first and second stages during flight. HCRS-2 was launched successfully into the Mediterranean Sea–witnessed by hundreds of spectators, including the news media, government officials, and “cultural attaches” from the American Embassy as well as other embassies in Beirut. It was the first rocket launched in the Arab world. Instantly we became the “rocket boys” and were treated like rock stars. The public was proud of and excited about our successes.
The news media from Lebanon and beyond covered our story on regular basis. We were invited to the Presidential Palace to meet with President Fouad Chehab, who offered financial support through the Ministry of Education – 10,000 Lebanese pounds for 1961 and 15,000 Lebanese pounds for 1962. We were given free access to the military’s workshop. At that point, the HCRS was renamed as the Lebanese Rocket Society (LRS). Two additional 2-stage rockets, named Cedar 2-B and Cedar 2-C, were launched. I used the word Cedar for the rockets because of its importance to Lebanon and its flag, a symbol of freedom and peace. The Cedar trees of Lebanon have a long history dating back to Biblical/historical times. In the meantime, while we were celebrating our successes, the military’s interest in our project was increasing with each launching.
TP: Could you describe some of the conditions that led you to end the project?
MM: Our successes inspired us to reach greater heights. Captain Wehbe suggested that we produce a rocket to be launched on Lebanese Independence Day. We designed a three-stage 22-foot long rocket named Cedar-3. Building Cedar-3 was a cooperative effort between the LRS and the military. It weighed 2800 lbs and had a range of about 200 miles. It was launched on November 21, 1962. A year later, a second three-stage rocket, Cedar-4, celebrating Lebanese Independence Day, made it into the thermosphere. On launch day about 15,000 people that included top generals, and the president, watched as the rocket took off, with spectators cheering and clapping. The Cedar rockets became the pride of Lebanon, and Cedar-4 was commemorated on Lebanese postage stamps.
Eager to continue my graduate studies, in 1962, I returned to the University of Texas. Two years later, in 1964, with an M.A. in hand, I went back to Beirut. It was time to use a more powerful propellant. Nitro compounds and ammonium perchlorate were considered. Static tests were performed. Cedar-5, a single-stage rocket, failed us by exploding on the launching pad. Correcting the weakness of the casing, we successfully launched Cedar-6 and Cedar-7 in 1965, each having a range of about 40 miles.
On August 4, 1966, Cedar-8, a two-stage 18-foot rocket with a 90-mile range, was launched. In attendance, as usual, were the general public, the news media, officers of the Lebanese army and foreign diplomats.
With flares attached to the second stage, the rocket lit the Lebanese sky. We witnessed the separation of the two stages, with the second stage continuing its trajectory and splashing close to a British destroyer off the island of Cyprus that was monitoring the launching. That was my last rocket to be launched. Its majestic flawless takeoff made it my favorite!
By then, the military’s strong interest in weaponizing the rockets conflicted with my interest in scientific research. Additionally, the political climate of the region made it clear that it was time to end the project and head back to the University of Texas for my doctorate degree. It was the right decision.
After my departure, one more launching took place. The Lebanese army produced and launched Cedar-10. That prompted the French, British and American governments advise Lebanon to end its rocket projects. By then the winds of war were blowing. A few months later, the Six-Day War took place, when Israel attacked its Arab neighbors–including Lebanon. The rest is history, and the LRS was erased from the collective memory of the country.
TP: Was it difficult navigating the boundary between research of rocketry and weaponization in the political climate of the time? How did the context of the cold war influence the dynamics and momentum of your projects?
MM: For me and for my students, the military application of our rockets was not an option. We had no interest in converting our rockets into instruments of war.
TP: Is there a future for science in Lebanon?
MM: Absolutely. The Lebanese are intelligent and resourceful. Lebanon has produced many outstanding scientists, artists, authors and educators. They have exported top scientists, many of whom reside in the US.
At this time, faculty and students at the American University of Beirut are building on what we accomplished some half a century ago. They have initiated courses dealing with the exploration of Mars. I hope and pray that the devastating neighboring geopolitical situation does not spill over into Lebanon. Finally, the HCRS/LRS project that my students and I embarked on has been an exciting educational journey that I will always cherish!