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Lebanon, the forgotten contender in the 20th century space race

Many children grew up dreaming of becoming astronauts, and Manoug Manougian was no exception. Decades later, he found himself at the head of an unexpected contender in the space race: the Lebanese Rocket Society.

Destined for the stars

Manougian’s fascination with space began in his childhood. Raised by an Armenian family in Jericho, Palestine, he would climb Mount Temptation to gaze up at the night sky, etching his dreams on the stones of his school desk. Pursuing his passion, Manougian earned a degree in mathematics and physics at the University of Texas before returning to Lebanon, where his parents had immigrated, to take up a teaching post at Beirut’s Haigazian College.


On his return, Mr. Manougian renamed the Haigazian College Science Club the Haigazian College Rocket Society, making it devoted to astronomy. Despite limited financial resources, members set about the ambitious task of building rockets from scratch, using only cardboard and bits of pipe. The first launches were not without their share of mishaps, with rockets veering off course and even landing near a church. Nevertheless, these setbacks did not deter the determined members from pursuing their goal. “I had no finances and there was little support for something like this. But I figured I could dip into my meager salary and convince my wife that I could buy what I needed for the experiments,” he said to the BBC.


Dr. Manoug Manougian posing for a portrait in his office at the University of South Florida. Times (2016)

Instant renown

News of their achievements spread and attracted the attention of the Lebanese army, which recognized the potential value of the Rocket Society. Youssef Wehbe, a young Lebanese army lieutenant specializing in ballistics, joins the Rocket Society and obtains from the USA and France the tools needed to build more sophisticated rockets. The club’s reputation grows, not only in Lebanon but also in neighboring countries. They continued to improve their rockets and eventually ventured beyond the country’s borders into the thermosphere, approaching the altitude of low-earth orbit satellites.


Students of the Lebanese Rocket Society preparing the rocket propellant

When dreams collide with reality

However, Manougian’s aspirations were not entirely aligned with those of the Lebanese army, which sought to exploit the club’s achievements for military purposes. While he dreamed of sending a symbolic payload – a mouse named Mickey – into space, the military had other intentions, as they were concentrating on developing Lebanon’s ballistic capabilities, and some of the Cedar rockets themselves had destructive capabilities close to those of French missiles of the time. In addition, tragedy struck when unauthorized use of a highly volatile propellant led to a devastating accident, causing serious injury to some club members. This incident, coupled with a rocket launch that almost collided with a British naval vessel, sounded the death knell for the Lebanese Rocket Society. Heeding the warnings, Manougian left his country and settled in the USA. “My vision was to explore space – Lebanon could have done that,” he told the BBC.


Lebanese stamps celebrating the Cedar rocket program


“Here was tiny Lebanon, able to do what the rest of the Arab world hadn’t done. We were young kids, in our early 20s, doing something incredible.”

Renewed interest

In recent years, a remarkable resurgence of interest has surrounded the Lebanese Rocket Society, highlighted by the release of the Franco-Lebanese documentary film in 2012 bearing the club’s namesake, directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, although much of the archive related to the society was lost as a result of the Lebanese civil war. This renewed interest has prompted Manougian to preserve Lebanon’s contributions and brief involvement in the space race, becoming a promoter of Lebanon’s potential to further explore space and launch satellites.



See also

Oman reaches for the stars with plans for first Arab spaceport

Published on 15 July 2023