Felix Baumgartner reminded us about the wonder of space. He jumped; we dreamed.
Growing up near Florida’s Space Coast, with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center a short drive away, I always thought space was my backyard. Each shuttle launch was magical and, yet, routine: a serene countdown, a powerful blast, an arc of light and smoke, a deft turn, a tricky release—mankind in unfettered ascent.
As we watched shuttle launches (and landings), my father would tell me about science and space; I was curious, and he was glad to dodge incessant questions about the sordid Middle East. “Here we are, in America, reaching for the stars,” he’d rant, with little provocation. “And our people are killing each other over a slice of land smaller than Connecticut.” Once, when the two conversations dovetailed, my father told me that Lebanon had a space program: “Before the war, some professors and students developed the Arz [Cedar] rocket, which could travel as far as Cyprus.”
My mind exploded with adolescent musings:
Was my Zahlawi father exaggerating? Was this space program just a bunch of drunks armed with bottle rockets?
How did Lebanon have a space program? I mean, we don’t even have a metro. And if we built a metro, nobody would ride the damn thing.
Why do we name everything “Cedar?” Were we burning cedar planks to fuel these missiles? Seriously.
Does the space program prove we’re Phoenician? That spacefaring impulse must have emerged from a latent seafaring gene unique to the Eastern Mediterranean. Wait, the project’s godfather was Armenian? Well, he’s still not Arab! And why does this matter again? Whatever.
Why put Cyprus within missile range? Their hummus isn’t that good. Same goes for Israel, Syria, and—oh, that must be why the program fell apart.
In truth, the Lebanese “space program” was a fascinating story. In 1960, professor Manoug Manougian and students at Haigazian University began experimenting with rockets and rocket fuel. By the mid-1960s, the “Lebanese Rocket Society” had developed a relatively sophisticated missile program. The Arz 4 missile, for instance, reached an altitude of 145 kilometers (fellow geeks, that’s in the “thermosphere,” where the International Space Station orbits).
Of course, a missile program in the Middle East—at the height of the Cold War, no less—attracted foreign attention. The usual intrigue followed: “The” Israelis, Syrians, Egyptians, Americans, and Soviets each monitored the program and involved themselves to various degrees. The scientists eventually abandoned the project, though it’s unclear whether foreign pressure or resource constraints drove that decision.
It’s tough to be cynical about the Lebanese Rocket Society. The project epitomized a Lebanese Myth, that rare narrative shared by all communities: During its gilded age, Lebanon was a place to be—but the world could not let it be.
Few are under the illusion that pre-war Lebanon was free from corruption, elitism, sectarianism, emigration, economic imbalance, or foreign intervention. But many believe that the Lebanese—and, more importantly, Lebanon—once had a place under the sun. For all its faults, Lebanon provided space for aspiration; in turn, the Lebanese aspired for Lebanon. However, foreign interests and Lebanese acquiescence derailed the country, just as they derailed the Lebanese Rocket Society. The dream was lost.
Today, while many Lebanese excel around the world, they’re hard-pressed to aspire collectively. Decades of war exacerbated the natural consequences of large-scale emigration, driving entrepreneurs and enterprises abroad; decades of occupation drove nationalism and liberalism underground; and decades of corruption and incompetence kept Lebanon suspended.
Since then, national dreams have been more modest: stability, a representative parliament, an opera house, and—maybe, just maybe—a functioning power grid. And, so, their symbols are more modest too: a World Cup berth, an American beauty queen, and—maybe, just maybe—a plate of hummus.