While the US and the Soviet Union were going head to head in order to conquer space, a group of scientists from a Beirut university were deep into a space program of their own that until recently was close to being forgotten.
Manoug Manougian’s obsession with space was developed in the 1940s, a young boy in Jericho reading Jules Verne novels. At night he would climb Mount Temptation and gaze at the sky, dreaming of one day exploring its infinity.
After completing a maths and physics degree from the University of Texas, Manougian returned to Lebanon for a teaching position at Haigazian College, a small university in Beirut. Once back home, he renamed the university science club Haigazian College Rocket Society in an attempt to attract more students.
“To my surprise a number of students decided to join. 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,” Manougian told BBC World Service.
The prototype rockets for the project were all made from scratch and were constructed with bits of pipe and cardboard, and the initial testing took place in the mountains overlooking Beirut.
“The college students came to watch one of the first launches and 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.”
In spite of the initial setback, more testing was done and each student involved were assigned a specific part of the rocket to study and refine.
Eventually, after a period of trial and error, the rockets reached a height of 2000 meters, a fact that made the Lebanese army look more closely at Manougians project.
“This achievement was held in such high regard by the officials that the rocket was commemorated on a stamp.”
A young lieutenant who specialized in ballistics, Youssef Wehebe, was offered by the military to assist in furthering the clubs ambitions. He made sure components from the US and France were made available to the team and even ordered a military factory to construct more complex versions of the rockets. The army also provided a state of the art artillery range to launch from with transport included.
But the army’s increasing interest in the Rocket Club was starting to worry Manougian, who always considered the project to be of a purely scientific nature.
“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 this time, in 1961, the group had gained significant fame and was seen as a source of national pride. Manougian subsequently received an invitation to an audience with President Chehab who promised that the Ministry of Education would provide funding for the following two years.
The club was once again renamed, this time to the Lebanese Rocket Society, and the national emblem was adopted for its Cedar Rocket Program. The Cedar IV launched in 1963 and reached a height of 90 miles, very close to the altitude of satellites in low-earth orbit. This achievement was held in such high regard by the officials that the rocket was commemorated on a stamp.
Suddenly Lebanon found itself challenging on all fronts when it came to rocket science. A remarkable feat considering the country’s slim resources.
“They were no longer toys and could go way beyond the borders. We could reach the thermosphere.”
But Manougians suspicion of military interference was well founded. Behind his back, a committee was formed by the army to figure out how to utilize his achievements for making weapons. With Youssef Wehebe working on the inside as a military spy and foreign agents going through Manougians office at night, looking for blueprints, the clubs founder had every reason to be cautious.
Surrounding Arab countries even tried to bribe him into letting them in on his secrets. “I was offered the moon in terms of money and support – a mansion to live in and a lab of my own design. But I turned them all down. I realized what the implications would have been as I’m very strongly against violence of any kind.”
With all that was going on, and with the growing sense that the project was slipping out of his control, Manougian periodically returned to the United States to finish his masters degree.
After a series of accidents involving the chemicals used in the process, and a near fatal accident in 1966 that saw the rocket miss a British naval vessel by a hair as it was monitoring the launch, Manougian decided to pull the chord on his project.
“It was time to leave. For me it had always been about encouraging the students.”
By the start of the Six Day War in 1967, Manougian was back in the US where he stayed for the rest of his academic career. Many of his students followed suit and started careers overseas. And with the founders, memories of the Rocket Society was starting to fade away with much of the archived material being lost in Lebanon’s civil war.
A recently released documentary film called “Lebanese Rocket Society” is reminding the world of Manoug Manougians achievements and helps the memory live on.
“I believe the rocket society encouraged students to pursue science and from that point of view it was a success. 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. We could have done it…”
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