Lebanon was the forgotten player in the sixties space race

In the early 1960s, some twenty-something enthusiasts in Lebanon started building remarkably sophisticated rockets. These rockets made it as far up as the International Space Station is today, and even the United States and Soviet Union had to pay attention.

The Lebanese Rocket Society was the brainchild of Manoug Manougian, a 25-year-old math and physics lecturer who in 1960 was teaching at Beirut's Haigazian College. Deeply fascinated with rockets, he enlisted some students who shared his love and together they started building the things. They weren't just playing around with models - using a student's family farm, the newly formed society set up shop and started experimenting with various solid rocket fuels.

The first successful launch came in April 1961. By this point, the Lebanese military was a part of the proceedings, and observers from the "official" competitors in the Space Race, the US and the Soviet Union, were on hand to watch. This initial success reached a maximum altitude of about one kilometer.

The Society then pulled off a bunch of increasingly impressive launches, ultimately reaching roughly 145 kilometers up into the thermosphere, the part of the upper atmosphere where the International Space Station orbits today. That altitude measures up quite respectably to the 187 kilometers reached by Alan Shepherd in Freedom 7, the United States's first manned foray into space. Of course, Lebanon never reached the point of putting astronauts inside its rockets, but that doesn't detract much from the incredible engineering acumen demonstrated by the Lebanese Rocket Society.

Unfortunately, the political climate of the time was not conducive to their rocketry experiments. Lebanon was not disconnected from the various political strifes that affected the reason, and French President Charles De Gaulle reportedly counselled Lebanon President Fouad Chehab to abandon their research into rocketry and missiles, lest it attract unwanted attention from those who feared the military applications of the work. The Rocket Society disbanded in 1966, and the entire project languished forgotten in obscurity.

But now, forty-five years after its disbanding and fifty years since that first successful launch, the Lebanese Rocket Society is getting a little well-deserved time back in the limelight. Lebanese artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have created an installation dedicated to the society for Sharjah Biennial 10, a preeminent art show in the Middle East held in the United Arab Emirates. New Scientist's Kat Austen describes the installation:

The artists have prepared a mixture of art work and archive material to interrogate this little piece of history. The focus of their show is a life-sized wooden model of a 6.8-metre-long Cedar 3 rocket, the most famous of those the Lebanese Rocket Society launched...

The artists have also left the rocket entirely unmarked, devoid of the insignia that marked the original as a test device from a rocket association. That makes the purpose of the rocket seem ambiguous: the immediate reaction, given the region's history, is that it must be a weapon. This makes the counter-intuitive truth even more poignant - that it represents a labour of love by a group of enthusiastic scientists.

Lebanon may not have been in any danger of beating the United States to the Moon, but their tiny space program remains a remarkable achievement, a testament to what even a small group of scientists can do if they set their minds to it.

Via New Scientist.