Who Was J. Allen Hynek?
J. Allen Hynek studied astronomy at the University of Chicago before joining the faculty at Ohio State University. In the late 1940s, he analyzed reports of unidentified aircraft sightings as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force's "Project Sign." The following decade, he began conducting more thorough investigations under the umbrella of the renamed "Project Blue Book," with his discoveries fueling a quest to turn the study of UFOs into a legitimate scientific practice. Hynek later founded the Center for UFO Studies and published multiple books on the subject. One of them introduced the "Close Encounter" classification of sightings, inspiring the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Josef Allen Hynek was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 1, 1910. His dad, Joseph, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, was a cigar manufacturer and his mom, Bertha, was a grammar school teacher.
An introduction to the stars came after Hynek was bedridden with scarlet fever at age seven: Having run through their supply of children's books to read, his mom turned to textbooks, with a high school edition on astronomy capturing the boy's attention.
Hynek excelled in math and became editor of his school paper in high school. By then he had also developed an interest in more esoteric subjects, particularly the works of the Rosicrucian secret societies and hermetic philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
After earning his bachelor of science from the University of Chicago in 1931, Hynek remained at the school to pursue a doctorate in astronomy. His graduate studies took him to the Yerkes Observatory at Wisconsin's Lake Geneva, where, he recalled, his focus on the cosmos left him largely in the dark about events like the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Instead, it was an interstellar event that impacted his career: With the appearance of the brilliant Nova Herculis in the night sky in late 1934, Hynek was tapped to take readings of the supernova at Ohio's Perkins Observatory, which was affiliated with Ohio State University. After earning his Ph.D., he joined Ohio State's Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1936.
Project Sign and Project Blue Book
In 1948 astronomer Hynek, then director of Ohio State University’s McMillin Observatory, agreed to help the U.S. Air Force investigate reports of unexplained aircraft sightings, including one that described the lightning-fast "flying saucers" above the Cascade Mountains in Washington.
As the astronomical consultant on "Project Sign," Hynek combed through the reports and sorted them into categories: There were those which were simply astronomical observations, like the appearance of a meteor, those explained by meteorology, like an unusually shaped cloud, and those which captured accounts of man-made objects, like balloons. That left about 20 percent with no clear explanation, though Hynek felt that answers would eventually surface and returned to Ohio State.
By 1952, with reports continuing to trickle in, the Air Force had rekindled the operation as "Project Blue Book." Hynek was also back in the fold and now granted the license to investigate the alleged sightings in the field. While he had harbored plenty of skepticism the first time around, he found his assumptions challenged by the rational recollections of witnesses, and began thinking about the legitimate scientific study of these "Unidentified Flying Objects" or "UFOs."
By the 1960s, Hynek had moved on as the chair of the Department of Astronomy at Northwestern University and was at odds with the stifling oversight of the Air Force. With the arrival of new intriguing cases, like a reported sighting of alien beings by New Mexico police officer Lonnie Zamora in 1964, Hynek began conferring with other curious Northwestern faculty members in what he called his "invisible college."
Swamp Gas and the Condon Committee
In March 1966, Hynek was dispatched to investigate reports of unusual lights in separate areas of Michigan over successive nights. Rushed to conduct his findings amid a horde of reporters, the scientist soon announced that the sightings were possibly the result of "swamp gas."
The term became a national joke, but Michigan Congressman and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford wasn't laughing and demanded the Armed Services Committee pick up what he felt was a shoddy investigation. Called to testify, Hynek used the occasion to argue for an extensive, transparent study of UFOs, marking his first public break from the Air Force.
With the formation later that year of the University of Colorado's "Condon Committee," named for director and physicist Edward Condon, Hynek was thrilled that UFO research had finally risen to a level of national importance. However, he was disappointed when the committee concluded two years of study with the report that there was no need to expend further resources on the subject. In 1969, Project Blue Book was formally shuttered for good.
Center for UFO Studies
No longer hamstrung by the Air Force, Hynek in 1973 formed the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) to further legitimize the field of "ufology." CUFOS enjoyed some successes in its early years, leading investigations of reported sightings while fostering working relationships with law-enforcement agencies.
Hynek left Northwestern in 1978 to devote his full attention to CUFOS. By the early 1980s, fundraising efforts were flailing and Hynek was forced to run the operation out of his home in Evanston, Illinois. He was lured to Scottsdale, Arizona, by a potential benefactor in 1984, though the promise of a revived operation failed to materialize.
CUFOS remains in existence, run by a devoted board of disciples who retain access to Hynek's files and continue to aid investigations of UFOs and other unexplained phenomena.
'The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry' and 'Close Encounters'
In 1972, Hynek sought to lay out a clear explanation of his studies by publishing The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. The book is most famous for introducing the "Close Encounter" classification: A Close Encounter of the First Kind entails the spotting of an unidentified aircraft; the Second Kind includes accompanying physical effects, like the sudden malfunctioning of equipment; and the Third Kind includes the sighting of life forms on or near the aircraft.
The terminology entered the pop culture lexicon later in the decade with the release of Steven Spielberg's sci-fi epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hynek served as a consultant on set and even made a brief cameo in the film as a scientist.
Other Media Appearances and Books
In the 1970s, Hynek was a well-known face of ufology thanks to appearances on programs like The Dick Cavett Show and In Search Of.... He was a popular and well-compensated speaker on the college circuit and even delivered a presentation on UFOs to the United Nations in 1978.
Hynek also continued his written analysis of the subject with The Edge of Reality: A Progress Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1975), co-authored with colleague Jacques Vallee. The following year, he offered the inside scoop of his involvement with Project Blue Book with The Hynek UFO Report: What the Government Suppressed and Why.
Other Professional Contributions
During World War II, Hynek helped develop military technology at the Johns Hopkins Applied Science Laboratory. His pet project was the proximity fuze, a detonator that used radio signals to determine when an explosive device was close enough to its target. Hynek's work here paved the way for his involvement with UFO investigations and other government projects.
Project Moonwatch and Sputnik
In 1956, Hynek was recruited by the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to aid efforts to launch the first man-made satellite into orbit. As part of what was dubbed "Operation Moonwatch," Hynek began establishing a global network of tracking stations outfitted with specialized optical instruments.
The plans were thrown into disarray when the Soviet Union suddenly launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. The event brought the first taste of media attention for Hynek, who found himself as the point man for interviews to explain what was happening and why Americans weren't in danger.
Hynek eventually resumed his work, along the way pioneering a method for capturing light from faint galaxies that became the foundation of image orthicon astronomy, before resuming his teaching career in 1960.
By the late 1950s, Hynek was again collaborating with the Air Force for what became "Project Stargazer": An attempt to overcome atmospheric distortions by launching high-altitude balloons equipped with telescopes. To Hynek's frustration, the Air Force scrapped the project in 1963 following a series of failed tests.
Marriages and Family
Following a first marriage that ended in 1939, Hynek in 1942 wed an undergraduate student named Miriam Curtis. They had five children: Scott, Joel, Paul, Ross, and Roxane.
Hynek died of a brain tumor at Memorial Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 27, 1986, at age 75.
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