Lebanese rocket academic’s story told in new film

The extraordinary forgotten story of a university science club which put the first Arab rockets into space is the focus of a new documentary film.

October 19, 2013

In 1961, Manoug Manougian, an academic at what is now Haigazian University in Beirut, challenged his students to help him build a rocket as a way of inspiring them with a passion for science and engineering.

Although they started with little more than fireworks and had to create their own propellant, they soon progressed to two- and then three-stage rockets which flew out across the Mediterranean and even, in one case, reached the thermosphere, now home to the International Space Station.

Such successes saw the team becoming national heroes, with an invitation to meet the president. Cedar 3, launched on Lebanese Independence Day in November 1962, was even commemorated on a postage stamp.

Rocket being prepared for launch

The army, sensing the military potential, provided funding through the Ministry of Education. Yet tensions in the region arising out of the 1967 Six Day War eventually led the French and other governments to put pressure on the Lebanese to stop the programme.

And the traumas of civil war accompanied by mass migration and huge destruction of documents meant that the whole remarkable episode slipped down the memory hole of even the Beirutis who had lived through it.

By 2001, when Paris-based Lebanese film directors Joana Hadjitomas and Khalil Joreige first heard about it, they assumed it must be “a bit of a joke or a myth”. But as they learned more, they decided they wanted to pay tribute to a group of “dreamers who also wanted to change reality”.

Rocket in flight

They contacted Professor Manougian, now close to 80 and a mathematics professor at the University of South Florida, and drew on his testimony and others to create The Lebanese Rocket Society. The film also shows how they organised a permanent memorial to his astonishing “science project” in the form of a life-size replica rocket in the grounds of the university.


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Reader's comments (1)

The byline of this article is somewhat misleading. Neither the Lebanese nor Haigazian College (now a University) are necessarily "Arab." Being Arab implies an ethic or religious connection to those who originate from the Arabian peninsula. At the time of this rocket launch, Lebanon was still a multicultural country composed of half Christian and half Muslim. Even the institution mentioned, Haigazian College was at the time primarily a Christian theological institution. Armenian evangelicals consider themselves no more "Arab" than the Coptic community in Egypt does. It would be more accurate to state that this is first rocket of the "Arab world," inferring a more regional orientation.

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