The Republic of Lebanon is set to reignite its space program, more than 40 years after the first Lebanese rocket ascended 140 kilometers into the thermosphere.
In a landmark decision, the new government is seeking funding for a multimillion dollar program that could see the country send an astronaut into space within a decade, sources told Executive.
Created in 1960 as a science club at Haigazian University in Beirut, the Lebanese Rocket Society was the first attempt at a national space program. It had its heyday with the launch of the Cedar IV rocket in 1963 and inspired a 2012 movie.
Spurred on by this movie and the untapped potential of the Lebanese intelligentsia, the new space program will be much more ambitious and may even focus on developing commercial space tourism and shuttle services. Details of the new program remain sketchy and will not be released until approved through an extraordinary meeting of the National Dialogue Committee, said a former director general from the department of railways and public transport involved in planning the program. “The main aim, in these difficult times, is to remind Lebanese people of our untapped potential. This is among the cabinet’s top priorities,” he said.
The cabinet committee for exploration of interstellar resources on April 1 filed requests for funding with the International Monetary Fund, Make a Wish Foundation, Banque du Liban, and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, all of whom signaled partially favorable responses.
Among the favorites to work with the government, however, are Virgin Galactic. A statement from Virgin’s President Sir Richard Branson said they were considering their options. “Lebanon, being the true center of the earth, is the ideal location for a space program,” he said in a statement. “And with the wealth of Lebanese talent, we would not need to hire expensive foreign expertise.”
An early sticking point, the former director general said, has been discussion of control over the ministry’s extensive resources. A senior figure in the March 14 political camp stressed to Executive the importance of state monopoly over space exploration, though he refused to comment on rumors that part of Saudi’s $3 billion grant to Lebanon will be used to fund the project.
There is also concern over the country’s fractious political balance, with concerns that the initial spacecraft may only fit three pilots. “We can’t have an unequal number of Christians and Muslims on this historic journey,” said the former director general. “I think we may have to just go with two pilots, or maybe appoint a foreigner to take the third seat.”
The move comes only two weeks after Syria announced it was to establish its own space agency, despite three years of a crippling civil war. It is not yet known whether there will be any collaboration between the two agencies, with fears of potential ‘space race’ across the Middle East. “It’s important for Lebanon’s standing in the world that the country is seen to be in space,” the former director general said.