BEIRUT — “Back in the 1940s [when I was a child in Jerusalem], schools were often closed due to regional conflicts,” Manoug Manougian, former head of the Lebanese Rocket Society (LRS), told Al-Monitor. “To entertain myself, I read science fiction books.… It was Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ that was the genesis of my fascination with space exploration.”
Even in Manougian’s youth, his passion for space travel and the pursuit of knowledge were closely tied to the politics of the time. This relationship would see him create, and then leave, the Lebanese space program in the 1960s. He had been attracted to the program's potential for groundbreaking technological feats, but repelled by the government's increasingly militaristic goals.
Before all that, Manougian had landed a job teaching mathematics and physics at Beirut’s Haigazian College in 1960, a time when the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing. It was also a time when some Middle Eastern states, among them Egypt and Israel, were scrambling to develop militarized rocket technology.
While Manougian deplored violence of any kind, he recognized the prevailing climate as an opportunity to encourage his students to study math and physics, while at the same time realizing his dreams of space exploration. Scientists with knowledge of rocket technology were seen as a valuable commodity, and the exploration of space had captivated the world.
In early 1961, Manougian founded the Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS). The goal of the half a dozen students who formed the group was to “perfect rockets capable of placing satellites in Earth’s orbit for biological and scientific studies.”
Khalil Joreige, a filmmaker and director of “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” a 2013 documentary, told Al-Monitor that the HCRS believed that “by using education and science, they were building a peace process.”
Within a year, HCRS had launched a series of rockets capable of traveling 1,000 to 2,000 feet. This caught the immediate attention of the Lebanese government, which under President Fouad Chehab was engaging in large-scale nation-building projects.
Manougian explained that in mid-1961, “General Joseph Wehbe of the Lebanese Army was assigned to monitor our activities and help us with our needs.” After an infusion of state funding, the HCRS launched the Cedar 2-A, the first two-stage rocket ever built in the Middle East, in September 1961.
After that bit of success, the group changed its name to the Lebanese Rocket Society, and in 1962 it launched two three-stage rockets, Cedar 3 and Cedar 4, causing an international incident.
“[The] Cedar 4 hit Cyprus by accident and suddenly it created a diplomatic problem,” Joreige said. “[When I asked] Wehbe about this, he looked at me enigmatically and said, ‘You know the sea is very large, and it was bad luck to hit Cyprus.’”
Manougian had been out of the country during the two launches, but while in Lebanon he was being closely followed by “cultural attaches” from the Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom. He later discovered that these attaches, who attended the launches and requested meetings, were from the KGB, CIA and other intelligence agencies.
As for the others, Manougian said, “[I had] no doubt that Israel was monitoring our activities.” He added that in surveilling him, they must have learned of his “abhorrence of wars.”
It was after the society's development of the three-stage rocket that the Soviets approached Manougian, offering him a research opportunity. In late 1962, an Armenian physicist from Moscow organized a meeting with Manougian.
“He congratulated my students and me for our successes and gave me a medal,” Manougian said. “He then invited me to do my graduate studies in Moscow.” Skeptical about conducting rocket research in the Soviet Union, Manougian declined the offer.
Even the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Abdullah III al-Salim Al Sabah, met with Manougian, in 1962. He offered Manougian “substantial financial backing” to create rockets in the Gulf emirate. Once again Manougian declined the offer. “I had no intention or interest in weaponizing our rockets in Kuwait,” he said.
Thus, instead of getting caught up in assorted countries' political machinations, Manougian chose to focus on his own work, trying to keep the technology he was developing a purely scientific endeavor.
He initially had good results. Following a series of successful launches, the Cedar 8 was unveiled on Aug. 6, 1966. “One of the most successful and beautiful launches we’ve had” is how Manougian described the event. The rocket, nearly 20 feet long, carried flares, so the large crowd viewing its launch could see when the first stage of the rocket fell away and the second stage ignited.
The Cedar 8 was the third of LSP’s rockets to pass the Karman line, the boundary some 62 miles above sea level where Earth's atmosphere ends and outer space begins. Despite the success of the Cedar 8, it would be the last rocket Manougian launched in Lebanon.
“Soon thereafter, Wehbe met with me and indicated the military’s desire to weaponize the rocket,” Manougian said. “We disagreed.” Manougian was also tipped off that war with Israel was eminent, further increasing the likelihood of the program's weaponization. For these reasons and a desire to further his studies, Manougian moved to the United States to pursue a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, just before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out. He remains in the United States, where he continues to teach.
The Lebanese space program fell by the wayside as war swept the region, eventually engulfing Lebanon in civil war.
“Soon after I left, the political climate, both in Lebanon and the surrounding regions at that time, was not conducive to either space exploration or science in general,” Manougian remarked. “Inner conflict and wars dominated and continue to dominate Lebanon.”
Manougian is not, however, without hope, “To say that Lebanon lacks what it takes to produce modern technology is a falsehood,” he said. “The Lebanese are highly capable and sought after in many parts of the globe.”
He noted that some students at the American University of Beirut have told him of their interest in “building on where the LRS ended.” Manougian believes that such a program cannot exist in the region while conflicts like the Syrian civil war continue. Still, he encourages his students at the University of South Florida, “Rockets [are] for space exploration, not for war and destruction.”
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