Mideast’s First Rocket Remembered

By Prof. Manoug Manougian, University of South Florida in Tampa, 25 May 2011This year is the 50th anniversary of the first rocket launch in the Middle East. Manoug Manougian, then instructor of mathematics and physics at the Haigazian College in Beirut, was the helmsman of the college’s Science Club, which began to build the rockets in the early ’60s. To commemorate the pioneering scientific event, Prof. Manougian, who now teaches at the University of South Florida in Tampa, wrote a brief history of the project. The anniversary has created excitement in various Middle Eastern countries. French/Lebanese film makers have produced a documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS). This spring the HCRS participated, with the emphasis on the peaceful use of rockets, in the Sharjah Biennial Art Festival in Dubai. Articles about the Haigazian rockets have been published in the “New Scientist” magazine and “The Guardian” in the United Kingdom, as well as in the “Huffington Post.” A Cedar 4 replica now stands at the entrance to Haigazian University. Below are Prof. Manougian’s memoirs of the remarkable launch of the Cedar rockets.

My passion for rocketry began at an early age–when I was at St. George’s School in Jerusalem. My wooden desk was covered with carvings of rockets flying to the moon.

In the summer of 1959, in my third year at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked for a trucking company for Republic Steel in Cleveland. Soon after, the workers went on strike and I was left idle at the workshop. That’s where I designed and built my first rocket … without a propellant.

After graduating, the following year, from the university, I joined the faculty at Haigazian College as an instructor of mathematics and physics. I was also assigned as faculty advisor for the Science Club. This provided me with the opportunity to realize my dreams of rocketry. I renamed the Science Club and formed the Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS). Initially, the student members were Simon Aprahamian, Garabed Basmadjian, Hampartsum Karaguezian, Hrair Kelechian, and Michael Ladah. Others who joined were John Tilkian, Hrair Aintablian, Hriar Sahagian, Jirair Zenian and Jean Jack Guvlekjian.

The purpose of HCRS was two-fold: to teach my students the methods of science through the mathematics and physics of rocketry, and to encourage them to pursue careers in mathematics, engineering and science. I made it clear, at the outset, that the project was not for military purposes. Rather, it was to be a voyage in the science of rocketry. Members of the society met regularly where I discussed rocket design and the mathematics of flight.

The next step was to come up with a propellant. Because of the inherent dangers of propellants, our initial attempts were conducted away from the college, on a farm belonging to Hrair Kelechian’s family. After a few mishaps, we perfected a propellant and launched a small 45-cm. rocket.

Excitement at Haigazian was contagious. In April 1961 we prepared a rocket that was 1.75-meters long. We invited the entire student body to witness the launch. We selected Kchag in the Ain Saade area for the launch. Although the rocket performed successfully, reaching an altitude of about 1,000 meters, the primitive launcher directed the rocket in the opposite direction from what we had planned. This prompted the Lebanese government to control the launching sites. In May 1961, a second similar rocket was launched on Sannine. It soared about 2,300 meters.

It was not until July 1961 that Israel launched its first rocket. Thus, Haigazian College and Lebanon can rightfully claim to be the first to have launched a rocket in the Middle East.

I was very impressed by the hard work and devotion exhibited by members of the HCRS. Many other Haigazian College students also assisted us by mixing the ingredients of the propellant and attended the launchings.

Following the early launches, I decided to experiment with multi-stage rockets. We devised a system that would separate the first and second stages while in flight. In September 1961, under the supervision of Capt. Wehbe of the Lebanese army we successfully launched a two-stage, 2.85-meter rocket. Capt. Wehbe was present for security reasons. The rocket was named Cedar 2. The first stage had a 10-cm diameter, while the second had a 7.5-cm diameter. The rocket rose to a height of about 2,500 meters.

Left to right: Simon Aprahamian, Hrair Kelechian, President of Lebanon Fuad Chehab,
Manoug Manougian, Hampartsum Karaguezian, Garabed Basmadjian
In August 1961, President Fuad Chehab of Lebanon invited members of the HCRS to meet him. The president congratulated us at an official reception. Later Lebanon issued a stamp to commemorate the Cedar launches. Deputy Emile Bustany was very supportive of our project while the government offered us financial assistance, as well as the army workshop to construct the rockets. We initially received 500 LL, followed by 25,000 LL for 1962 and 25,000 LL for 1963. This encouraged a group of prominent Lebanese to form the “Comite d’encouragement du Groupe Haigazian” to promote the activities of HCRS. The committee included Dr. Ibrahim Dagher, Dr. Bedros Aznavourian, Mme Issam Hussami, Mlle Huguette Kraichaty and Mme Marie-Paulette Karayan.Our experiments and the activities at the HCRS drew the attention of the Lebanese news media and beyond, including articles in the “News Review” of the U.S. Information Service and in a publication of the American Friends of the Middle East. I was interviewed on Lebanese television, as well as on Voice of America. Various embassies showed an interest in our activities, with visits from cultural attaches of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I also met U.S Ambassador Porter. Although I have no proof that foreign agents were monitoring us, on several occasions I noticed that my notes on my office desk were shuffled.

By the middle of 1962 we were seeking new and more powerful propellants. One possibility was potassium perchlorate paste. However, because of its dangerous characteristics, I ruled it out and we did not pursue any experiments with it.

In the summer of 1962 I decided to return to the University of Texas to continue my graduate education. By then the HCRS had accomplished some major firsts. They included:

1. The Cedar 2 series (2-A, 2-B, and 2-C) proved that we had a viable and safe propellant

2. Our rocket design functioned well and the device for separation of stages in flight was perfected

3. Support by the college, the Lebanese government and the army (under the direction of Capt. Wehbe) proved to be very helpful. An area overlooking the Mediterranean in Dbayeh was assigned as our permanent launch site

4. As a result of national interest in the study of rocketry, the Lebanese Rocket Society (LRS) was formed. The supervising committee of the LRS consisted of M. Manougian, Dr. P. Mourad (AUB), L. Karamanougian, Capt. J. Sfeir, E. Kai and Capt. J. Wehbe.

Cedar 3 moments before launch

Before I departed for the U.S., Capt. Wehbe and HCRS planned the launch of three-stage rockets. These produced Cedar 3 and Cedar 4. It was a cooperative effort between HCRS, LRS and the Lebanese Army. During my absence (1962 to 1964), Prof. Edward Hart of Haigazian was the faculty advisor of HCRS.

Cedar 3 was launched to celebrate Lebanese Independence Day in 1962. Cedar 4 was launched on Nov. 21 1963.Cedar 3 was launched to celebrate Lebanese Independence Day in 1962. Cedar 4 was launched on Nov. 21 1963.

Cedar 4 before launch
In 1964, after receiving my M.A. from the University of Texas, I returned to Haigazian. To my horror, I found out that a few weeks earlier a member of the HCRS (Hrair Keleshian) had tried to prepare a rocket with potassium perchlorate as propellant. The propellant ignited inflicting serious burns on Hrair. Another student (Hampar Karageuzian), who happened to be passing by, rescued Hrair, but in the process he too received severe burns. The two were taken to the AUB hospital. Fortunately, both recovered and continued as active members of the society.Upon my return in 1964 we organized a science exhibition which displayed our earlier launches, as well as our plans for the next two years. The exhibit was held at Haigazian College and was attended by the students and the general public.

The program for 1964 to 1966 involved the construction of more powerful and reliable rockets to perform telecommunication experiments with Keles rockets in flight. We received propellants from France. The first step was to conduct static tests that were performed in Dbayeh. Static tests involve holding a rocket in place without flight, ignite the propellant, and measure the characteristics of the propellant, the nozzle, and the metal used for the body of the rocket.

On Sept. 23, 1964, we launched Cedar 6. This was a 3-meter rocket equipped with solid propellant and electronic instruments in the nose cone. The electronic instruments were prepared by Capt. Joseph Sfeir to study telecommunication and the performance of the rocket. Cedar 6 flew to an altitude of 14 kilometers and had a range of about 40 kilometers.

On May 12, 1966, Cedar 7 was ready to be launched. This was a one-stage rocket with a payload of 20 kilograms designed to fly to an altitude of 70 kilometers, with a range of about 100 kilometers. It carried instruments to study rocket design, telemetry and recording. At ignition, Cedar 7 exploded on the ramp. We determined that there was a weakness in the seams of the body of the rocket. This had happened a few days before for the launch of American astronaut Eugene Cernan’s planned walk in space.

A few days after the launch of Cedar 8, I returned to the University of Texas to complete my education for a doctorate in mathematics. I left firmly believing that Haigazian College had become a leader in higher education in the Middle East. Five decades later, I look back with excitement at a rare voyage of discovery and the realisation of a dream that Haigazian College, my students and Lebanon offered me.

A question that I am often asked is why did I form the Haigazian College Rocket Society? For a meaningful educational experience, a college has to offer cutting-edge research in various disciplines. One has to remember that in the latter part of the ‘50s and the ‘60s rocketry and space exploration had taken center stage in world affairs. The United States and the Soviet Union had locked horns for control of space. What better way to teach current issues and the interaction of mathematics and physics than rocketry and space exploration?

  1. Cedar Rocket

    I bet that had the group, which designed the Cedar rockets, done its pioneering work in the state southwest of Lebanon, long ago Hollywood would have made a star-studded movie about the remarkable collective achievement. Harrison Ford would have portrayed Prof. Manoug Manougian.

  2. Dear Professor

    Dear Prof. Manoogian,

    I read with interest about your achievements and that of your students. Very commendable, indeed. Congratulations on the 50th anniversary of the Cedar rockets.
    Would you consider a visit to our homeland to collaborate with scientists there and all over the Diaspora? I shall be in Yerevan around June 7th and have many contacts at various ministries, acadmic circles and political parties. I am non-partisan but maintain good relations with all. We must begin to organize ourselves and carry on as a team. I suggested, in 2002, an Armenian Diaspora Conference on the official page of Armenia’s foriegn ministry. I am suggesting conferences for engineers and scientists from all over the globe, followed by conferences for experts in travel and transport, and the other 13 professions. Foreign Minister Hranoush Hakobian is beginning to do that. I may visit her again, in June, to discuss this issue. It  is of utmost importance

    Hama Haigagani siro

    Gaydzag Palandjian

  3. Great Bit of History

    Thanks for documenting and sharing this most interesting story. It was informative and fascinating. It also shows what can be done collectively if Armenians have the population density to have centers of higher education.  

    Prof. Manougian, you are an Armenian Robert Goddard or Werner Von Braun.

    All the best,



  4. Haigazian Rocket

    Thank you for this wonderful informative article. It rekindled in me the fascination with which we followed the news about the Haigazian Saroukh, the Arabic word for rocket. When that unfortunate explosion happened, Haigazian College and its rockets became the topic of everyday conversation. I graduated HS in 1965. I had no idea to this day that you had accomplished the feat you described.
    Where are the members of the science club nowadays? Did their experiences shape their career choices later on? It would be interesting to hear about the members of the science club as well.

    Thank you 

    1. The Rocketeers

      Re the Cedar Rocket team.
      Simon Aprahamian lives in San Diego. Hampar Karageuzian lives in Orange County. The last time I heard, Garo Basmadjian is in Oklahoma or in Arkansas. I don't know the whereabouts of the rest of the team. Perhaps Prof. Manougian knows.

      1. Haigazian

        Those were the days … The excitement of the launches (Dbayyah, anyone?) and that fateful Saturday with the blast on the fourth floor of the new building. Hrair, if you see this, drop me a line; same goes for all of you .. Hampar? Johnny?

        I have been in the Washington D.C. area for the past 25 years. LA is not too far, if someone wants to plan a reunion.

        David (Jirair) Zenian

  5. Haigazian Rocket

    While Haigazian University and the Lebanese government are entitled to our respect and admiration for their backing of the Cedar rockets project, it’s only fair to also recognize Jerusalemite Armenians. Not only Prof. Manougian was born and educated in Jerusalem, so were several of his more prominent team member students, portrayed, in Keghart, with him and President Chehab.

    The small (about 2,500 in the early ’60s) Armenian community of Jerusalem was always punched above its weight in contributing to our Diaspora. Few in numbers and not as affluent as Armenian communities in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, the Jerusalem community has nurtured hundreds of Armenians who have contributed to the Armenian nation. To name just a few: writer Vahram Mavian, composer-conductor Ohan Durian (Hovhanness Khachadourian), Prof. Manougian, poet Yeghishe Derderian, teacher and author Setrag Baghdoyan, Prof. Haig Khachadourian (philosopher), Yeghya Dikranian, Jerusalem teacher and school administrator for nearly 60 years, and editor Oshin Keshishian.

    In Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles you will find numerous Jerusalemite Armenians actively involved in Armenian community affairs.

  6. Dear Professor Manougian

    Dear Professor Manougian,

    I have read your article and it is amazing how it rekindled memories of the year prior to my Lebanese Baccalaureate graduation. They were turbulent times and the Lebanese Civil War was in full swing.

    Armed with a good deal of knowledge of chemistry, I was able to synthesize nitroglycerine paste on our third-floor balcony in what is now Gemmayze, Beirut. That, however, raised a lot of eyebrows from neighbors, and burned the eyebrows of my aunt, as well as well as causing several spontaneous explosions and decompositions–until I perfected the stability of the agent with flour and sawdust. Little did I know then that I had seven kilograms of dynamite in our balcony, all requiring just an errant bullet to set the whole thing on fire and most likely destroy our apartment. One day the spontaneous exothermic reaction–albeit performed on ice–threw out plumes of nitrogen dioxide and made our guests flee for their lives!

    Although I have moved to a diametrically opposite domain (immunology and surgery), I still have the fervor of my youthful experimental days. If I do get the chance I still read "Nature Physics Portal" and "Popular Mechanics" if medical time allows.

    My point: I encountered immense criticism back then, but I still carried on. However, that is still not my main point. Today we have to think differently as a nation, to protect our interests as well as our science. Gaidzag Palandjian mentioned something very supportive and very genuine. Although you did not develop the rockets for military purposes, a rocket is still regarded a strategic deterrent against offensive acts. I sincerely urge you to pass on your know-how to the Armenian scientists in Yerevan as projects like these require hefty government pockets and are needed now more than ever. Never mind the red tape which you will obviously encounter in Yerevan (they still have Soviet mentality), but your knowledge will most likely benefit our scientists, our engineers or even our youth, and you can start by a simple Armenian Rocketry Youth Club and see how things go.

    I hope my words are not heavy. I wish you good luck and sincere appreciation for your achievements.


    DR S. Boghossian


  7. Hello from a Lebanese Admirer

    Professor Manougian, 
    I remember your name very well, although I was a child when your project was launched in Beirut. I listened to my father as he talked about your invention. If I am not mistaken, you were living in the same building in Beirut-Rouche area where we were staying. Salute to you and all the scientists who contributed to this project

  8. Haigazian College Rocket Society

    My name is Hrair Keleshian and I am one of the original Dreamers of the Haigazian College Rocket Society. A few weeks ago I accidentally came across the trailer video titled "Lebanese Rocket Society, A tribute to Dreamers". I would like to contact Dr. Manoog Manoogian, if it is OK with him, to let him know that I am OK and I was not the one that got burned in 1964. I have a lot of happy memories of our association from the 1960-61 period at Haigazian College. Your help will be greatly appreciated.

    1. Blast

      I was at school and had gone down from the lab (where fuel was being mixed) to Nonosh (you all must remember Nonosh. Bless his soul) when the blast occurred. Worst hurt was Hrair Aintablian. Does anyone know where he is these days?

    2. To Hrair Keleshian re: “Dreamers of Haigazian College”

      Dear Hrair Keleshian,

      I am your next door neighbor in Achrafieh, Elie Hanna. I always think of you and your adventure and tell my friends about it. After you left, my friendship continued with your brothers, especially Harout, who is my age. Your mother, Astir, visited me when I was at Columbia back in 1966-67. My sister, Mona, still sees Elisabeth but I've been living in Dubai since 1976.  Let's hear from you.

      Hrair, here is my email address to get in touch: eliashanna44AThotmail.com


      NB AT is inserted in the e-mail address instead of @ to avoid spamming the author of this message. Keghart.com-Ed.


  9. Lebaneese Rocket Society

    Dear Mr. Manougian, 

    Today in Paris I saw the "Lebanese Rocket Society" movie. It awakened old memories.
    At the time you were building your first rockets, I was a teenager in Beirut, and was interested in space flights. It was delightful to read the details of each of your successful launches on the front pages of the "L'Orient" newspaper. Taking you as example, and unaware of the danger, I used to make my own small rockets with cardboard, fueling them with gunpowder and later with molten sugar and sodium nitrate that my parent bought as fertilizer. One of the rockets, the best I ever made,  reached about 40 meters.

    Though the Lebanese Rocket Society does not exist any more, it still makes us dream of what Lebanese scientists might have done. A great matter of pride for this tiny country. Thank you.

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