Culture  The lost era of Lebanese rocketry

The Lebanese Rocket Society digs up some astronautics memories

In October 1957, Russia launched its first satellite into orbit and inaugurated its Space Race with the U.S.. Fuelled by militarism and ideological prestige, the two-decade-long contest served as a barometer of progress in space technology, effectively monopolizing publicity and glossing over the complex network of actors and interactions that defined astronautics culture at the time. In reality, rocketry and space programs were popping up all over the world, led by both independent and state-sponsored organizations, for national, military, or purely scientific interests. And yet, the significance of these alternative narratives are largely overwritten by those of the Cold War superpowers.

According to Lebanese filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, present-day Lebanese citizens are often incredulous of the fact that their country developed its own space program during the space fever of the 1960s. Their latest film, The Lebanese Rocket Society, which screened as part of the Special Presentations category of the Montreal International Documentary Film Festival, explores archival and personal records of the eponymous space program in order to rediscover its historical significance and counteract this collective amnesia. For contemporary Lebanese audiences, this ìlost history,î as the filmmakers call it, can serve as a compelling reminder of an era when diverse members of the community could unite under a common heading amid regional, political, and religious strife.

The Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS), which would later evolve into the Lebanese Rocket Society, was formed in 1960 at Haigazian University in Beirut. Hadjithomas and Joreige tracked down and interviewed its founder, Manoug Manougian, a young Lebanese professor who had returned to Lebanon to teach after receiving a bachelorís degree from the University of Texas. His passion for science led him to create and fund the club with his own salary. Once he attracted several students, they began working together to engineer and test rockets, attempting to push the limits of their projectilesí reach.

When students and faculty from the University started showing up to watch the HCRSís test launches in increasing numbers, it became clear that the project had a contagious potential for fascination. The film displays photographs of these launches, dug up in Lebanese archives and provided by Manougian himself, who explains that his clubís humble beginnings were opened up, but also conflicted, by the interest the HCRS attracted. As Manougian and his students continued to innovate and test their designs, and reach new heights, the college administration recognized their ability to generate publicity and began funding them. With local youth developing an especially keen enthusiasm in the HCRS, rocket programs started up at other colleges in Beirut and began contributing to the atmosphere of innovation in their own rights. Later on, the Lebanese government finally decided to fund the venture, recognizing its technological success and potential to become a national enterprise, under the condition that it be renamed the Lebanese Rocket Society (LRS).

As Manougian asserts in an interview, although the military was able to provide a set of important resources to the LRS, its interests ultimately conflicted with the programís initial orientation toward science and education. Early in the HCRSís development, the military offered the expertise of a young ballistics officer who could source materials from France and the U.S., and provide a factory setting for more complex engineerings. Manougian reveals that the military later offered him large sums of money to join a secret research project, which he turned down after realizing that its objectives were violent in nature.

As The Lebanese Rocket Society demonstrates, the militaryís engagements both set the stage for a space program and ultimately cut its trajectory short, thereby hermetically sealing it from Lebanese consciousness. A necessity for a collective enterprise developed in the wake of the unstable reconciliation of the 1958 Lebanon Crisis. The civil conflict intensified the religious and political demarcations between Pro-Western Christians and Arab-Nationalist Muslims within the country. Though the film does not analyze the symbolic contours of the space program, it appears that the LRS provided an ideal means to bridge the divide in the population, since it signified both an autonomous, national enterprise, and a step in line with the Westís modernization projects. The era of the LRS was divisively ended with the overwhelming preoccupation of the Six-Day War in 1967, during which much of the archival evidence of the space program was destroyed and denied to posterity.

The LRSís most socially conducive aspect, however, was its emphasis on education and scientific discovery. As the filmís archival images show, the combination of research creation and public exhibition provided a platform for social interactions outside the paradigm of conflict. The film shows footage of the launch of the Cedar IV ñ the fourth in a series of rockets named after the emblem on the Lebanese flag ñ on Independence Day, November 21, 1963. This catalyzed a large public celebration and the commemoration of the launch on a postage stamp. The rocket, which flew 145 kilometres, nearly reached the height of Russiaís first satellite. Although this launch happened six years later, it demonstrates a technological sophistication worth being recognized in relation to the superpowersí achievements.

The Lebanese Rocket Society concludes with the creation of a monument devoted to the historical and national significance of the LRS. The filmmakers coordinate with public officials and engineers to construct a replica of one of the Cedar rockets and erect it on the Haigazian campus. The film depicts how the transportation of the sculpture becomes a politicized task itself, as Hadjithomas, Joreige, and their producers consider the range of implications of driving an ostensible weapon through downtown Beirut. This final act speaks cogently to the inherently militaristic nature of space programs and the conflicts of interests they inevitably stir up, as well as their ability to bring people together.