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  1. Life & Culture

USF’s rocket club is an underdog. Can it win a $1 million space race?

If their professor Manoug Manougian launched a rocket into space in 1961, maybe they can get there too.
Javian Hernandez and Jackson Stephenson, president and vice president of USF's Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry.
Javian Hernandez and Jackson Stephenson, president and vice president of USF's Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry. [ Courtesy of SOAR ]
Published Jan. 15, 2020
Updated Jun. 30, 2020

University of South Florida students are locked in a million dollar race with a finish line in the sky.

The money goes to the first student-led team of amateurs to launch a rocket past the Kármán Line. That’s 62 miles up. Where the atmosphere is so thin conventional aircraft can’t fly. The boundary to space.

They have until Dec. 30, 2021 to get there.

The Base 11 Space Challenge’s goal is to get students engaged with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and hopefully create a more diverse pipeline to the aerospace industry, which now faces a critical shortage of talent due to impending retirements and the under-representation of women and minorities.

USF’s competition for this $1 million prize: University of Michigan, University of California Los Angeles and Purdue, among other schools with high-ranking academic programs in aerospace engineering.

USF doesn’t even have an aerospace program. Javian Hernandez and Jackson Stephenson, president and vice president of the USF Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry, or SOAR, are studying mechanical engineering. Others SOAR members major in physics or chemistry.

They don’t have a big budget. They don’t have many donors. And they don’t have the manufacturing capabilities of a full-on machine shop that many universities with an aerospace program have.

“Like these right here,” Hernandez, 21, said, pointing to some steel plates for a rocket’s frame. “Just to have them laser cut, or water jet cut, would take about two hours, but instead we had to take an angle grinder and work for like four or five days.”

A USF Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry launch in Plant City.
A USF Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry launch in Plant City. [ Courtesy of SOAR ]

But they do have a dedicated group that loves shooting things into the sky.

“We’ve already been working on this project for a year and a half. You have to have a passion for it.”

And then there’s the secret weapon: Professor of mathematics Manoug Manougian is the club’s faculty advisor and director of USF’s STEM Education Center. You can call him the “father of the Lebanese space program.” That’s how the documentary about his life put it.

That title might not mean much, until you consider Manougian wasn’t some high-level government rocket scientist when he earned it. He was a 23-year-old math instructor at a tiny liberal arts college who brought together some student rocket enthusiasts in 1960. They started from scratch and launched rockets into space at a time when few governments had done so.

It was a feat so outstanding at the time — the first rocket launched in the Middle East — that for a moment, all of Lebanon paid attention. Then other nations including the U.S. and Russia started watching, too. Lebanon put one of their rockets on a postage stamp. And when it was over, it was like everyone forgot for 50 years.

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Growing up in Jerusalem “when warring parties dominated the region,” Manougian found tranquility in science fiction. “I was fascinated with space, flying carpets and Jules Verne.”

As the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced plans for the moonshot, Manougian became a passionate follower of the real-life space race. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and was offered a position teaching math and physics at a newly-established school then known as Haigazian College in Beirut, Lebanon. The student body numbered about 200.

Because of his own interests, and in an effort engage his students in math, physics and chemistry, Manougian put up a flyer seeking members for a club that would become the Lebanese Rocket Society. He quickly found an enthusiastic group eager to launch rockets. “Being at the smallest college in one of the smallest countries in the Middle East," Manougian said, “did not phase us.”

They used spare pipes salvaged from local shops as rocket parts. The undergrads would be covered in powder, mixing chemicals themselves trying to find a suitable rocket fuel. They had little established information to go by, but they inched along, and after some early failures they successfully launched Cedar I in 1961 reaching 1,000 meters. They followed it up with Cedar II, which went up 2,300 meters.

Dr. Manoug Manougian laughs while posing for a portrait in his office at the University of South Florida.
Dr. Manoug Manougian laughs while posing for a portrait in his office at the University of South Florida. [ Times (2016) ]

A sudden sensation, they were invited to meet with Lebanese president Fuad Chehab. They were given funding, access to military workshops and a launch site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where they could send up rockets aimed in a direction that wouldn’t upset neighboring countries (though they did get complaints from Cyprus).

Newspapers covered their efforts, which became a point of national pride. One paper ran a political cartoon featuring caricatures of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy standing next to large rockets. In between them stands a Lebanese general holding a tiny rocket, and offering to defeat the Russians for Kennedy. Crowds came to watch launches and celebrated their success in the streets.

Cedar III crossed the Kármán Line into space. The postage stamp featuring Cedar IV was released on Lebanese independence day in 1964. They made it to Cedar VIII before the program was shut down in 1967.

A crowd gathered to watch a Lebanese Rocket Society launch in 1962.
A crowd gathered to watch a Lebanese Rocket Society launch in 1962. [ Courtesy of Manoug Manougian ]

At 84, Manougian has an incredibly precise memory for the days of the Lebanese Rocket Society. In his USF office are black and white photos of him with students and various government officials standing near Cedar rockets, which grow in size and sophistication.

In one he poses with four men in suits who appear a little older than him at the time. “These two guys are CIA agents who started coming around,” Manougian said, pointing at the photo. “Later I showed them this photo and asked, ‘Who were those other two guys?’ ‘Oh, those are KGB agents,’ they told me."

The Lebanese Rocket Society got help from the military, and the program ended due to fears it would appear they were developing weapons. But Manougian says his group never once wavered from its first founding rule: Rockets are for space exploration and not for wars and killing.

A Lebanese postage stamp commemorating the launch of the rocket Cedar IV.
A Lebanese postage stamp commemorating the launch of the rocket Cedar IV. [ Courtesy of Manoug Manougian ]

After the rockets, Manougian returned to the U.S., finished a doctorate degree at the University of Texas and was eventually offered a job at USF. He knew nothing about the city, but he did remember one thing. In Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the rocket blasts off from Tampa.

Manougian became a distinguished faculty member over the decades, and the story of the Lebanese Rocket Society “went into oblivion,” he said. It wasn’t like he talked about it. Not until more than 50 years had passed, when some filmmakers came across an old postage stamp and wondered: Why would a Lebanese stamp have a photo of a rocket?

Their documentary The Lebanese Rocket Society featuring Manougian was released in 2011. People at USF heard the story for the first time. It made sense that USF’s rocket club asked Manougian to be their mentor and advisor.

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USF’s SOAR club has its work cut out. The Base 11 rules require that the rocket that crosses the Karman Line be single-stage and liquid-fueled. No amateur club has ever come close to such a feat. SOAR hit a milestone in 2019 with the launch of Taurus I, it’s first multi-stage rocket, which set a club record by reaching 11,168 feet. The club’s president at the time was Stephanie Bauman, who has since graduated and gone on to a graduate program at Oxford University.

The Base 11 competition, which stretches into 2021, will be a significantly bigger challenge.

Manougian isn’t involved with the engineering of the rockets that SOAR develops. That’s all the students. His role, he says, is to support the program, help them promote and secure funding. But he is an inspiring presence.

On a recent afternoon he watched the club perform an injector flow test. Mrudit Trivedi, the club’s chief of rocketry, checked different nozzles and settings on a checklist and Stephenson hit the button. Water sprayed out from the spot where soon, hopefully, a flame will shoot from the engine. The test went well. Manougian sat quietly nodding in approval.

It was a small step forward into uncharted territory for the club, and though hey have a long way to go, SOAR has already given their rocket a name.

They call it Cedar IX.