Josef Allen Hynek’s first look at the heavens came only a few days after he was born on May 1, 1910. His parents, Joseph and Bertha, took their newborn son to the roof of their apartment building in Chicago, Illinois, to see the brilliant trail of Halley’s Comet, which was making its closest recorded approach to earth. Some worried that when our planet passed through the comet’s tail, catastrophe would befall the earth, but the comet’s effect on young Hynek was quite the opposite. From that night on, every significant event in Hynek’s life would be announced by the appearance of a strange visitor in the sky.
Hynek took an interest in science when he fell ill as a child and his mother read him an astronomy textbook. By the time he attended the University of Chicago, he knew that his future was in the stars, and he began to identify with Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century astronomer. Kepler was famous for analyzing the astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, and using Brahe’s data to develop his three Laws of Planetary Motion, a fact that impressed Hynek greatly. “Kepler was a mystic,” Hynek wrote admiringly in a college paper, “and he cared for nothing but the search for Truth.”
Hynek was also taken with the writings of the Rosicrucians and of hermetic writer Rudolph Steiner, who believed that there was a separate, “supersensible” realm close to our own reality, and that, with effort, one could study that realm as concretely as one could study our own. This flirtation with mysticism did not, however, clash with Hynek’s faith in Keplerian rationalism, the scientific method or his reliance on facts in his own search for the Truth. Years later Hynek would admit that his attraction to science stemmed, to a great degree, from his interest in the unknown, and the unknowable: “For me,” he once said to his friend and colleague Dr. Jacques Vallée, “the challenge was to find out the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain.”
While working on his graduate degrees at the University of Chicago, Hynek put in many long, lonely nights at the telescope at Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin, measuring the spectra of distant stars. So dedicated was he to his mission that he essentially missed out on the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II (although he did marry and divorce in rather quick succession).
When Nova Herculis, the brightest supernova of the century, appeared in the night sky in 1934, Hynek’s life took a dramatic and fateful turn. His prowess with the spectrometer at Yerkes earned him a research position at the Perkins Observatory in Ohio, where he observed and took readings of the supernova night after long, freezing night. So impressed were his employers that in 1936 they offered Hynek a teaching position at Ohio State University, and he began his long career as an educator.
In 1942, Hynek married a young undergraduate student, and when he and his new wife Mimi honeymooned in Washington. D.C., a colleague persuaded him to take a position at Johns Hopkins University helping to develop new defensive technologies for the war effort. Hynek spent the next few years on the east coast, working on the development of the proximity fuze, the world’s first “smart weapon,” a radio-controlled detonator that saved the lives of countless Allied fighting men and arguably shortened the span of the war considerably.
His wartime work earned Hynek a high security clearance, and introduced him to dozens of influential scientists and researchers, some of whom would come to play crucial roles in his later life. It also opened the door to ongoing government contracts, so that when Hynek returned to teaching at OSU in 1946, he brought with him a rewarding ability to garner scientific research grants. Among those projects was an effort to launch meteorological and astronomical measuring instruments in the nose cones of the V-2 rockets the United States had retrieved from Germany at the end of the war. Hynek, who was present at several launches at White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, was literally one of the country’s first bona fide “rocket scientists.”
Little wonder then that when the US Air Force found itself at a loss to explain the sudden, astounding appearance of “flying saucers” in the skies, they turned to Dr. Hynek to help them explain away the phenomenon. First, in June 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold saw a line of nine silver “flying saucers” in the skies above the Cascade Mountains and clocked them at over 1,200 miles per hour. Then in January 1948, Air National Guard pilot Thomas Mantell crashed his P-51 Mustang on a Kentucky farm after chasing a cone-shaped object and passing out. These sensational, heavily-reported incidents—along with many secret military encounters taking place repeatedly all across America throughout late 1947 and early 1948—put the government on the spot.
Hynek’s association with what would eventually be called unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, began in 1948 with a contract to work with the Air Force’s official UFO study project, Project Sign, which was located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in nearby Dayton. Hynek’s job was simple: read over the UFO reports submitted to him by the Air Force and determine whether the object in question was a misidentified astronomical phenomenon. Hynek pursued the work with great relish, and was able to identify many mysterious UFOs as simple meteors, planets, and stars. In Hynek’s reports, Arnold’s flying saucers were mis-identified aircraft, and Mantell’s object was the planet Venus. Hynek found that only 20% of the reports could not be identified, and he believed that, given enough time and resources, those could be explained away as well. In fact, he was not above simply making up an unproven phenomenon to explain away a UFO, as he did with a 1947 sighting in Idaho that he declared was a rare “atmospheric eddy,” something that had never been heard of before and has never been heard of since.
But such were the early days of UFO research. The Air Force was initially interested in a legitimate investigation, but soon there were changes in policy. The project was then charged with making UFOs go away, and Hynek did his best to oblige. And when his Project Sign contract ended in 1949 (under the new, aptly-named Project Grudge), Hynek turned his attention back to his academic career and forgot all about UFOs.
The Air Force’s troubles, meanwhile, had only begun. When some staffers on Project Sign promoted an “extraterrestrial theory” for the UFO phenomenon, the Pentagon disapproved and reassigned the staff members responsible. Sign was replaced by Project Grudge, which was given the mission of making UFO reports a non-issue. When this stance proved impossible to maintain and the Air Force looked more and more inept with every new sighting that captured the headlines, Grudge was revived in a moribund state before it was reinvigorated and renamed as Project Blue Book. It was hoped that Blue Book would finally put the question of UFOs to rest.
When the new project director Lieutenant (later Capt.) Edward J. Ruppelt went to Hynek for help in interpreting old Project Sign case files, Hynek was astonished to find that the UFO phenomenon had not simply faded away as he had expected. Not only were UFO reports more persistent than expected, but he belatedly realized that the 20% of cases that remained unexplained presented a real scientific problem. Many of the incidents seemed to Hynek worthy of serious study.
After a terrifying UFO “assault” over the skies of Washington, D.C., in 1952, the CIA convened a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to address the UFO issue. The Robertson Panel declared in January 1953 after only four days of study that UFOs were not a threat and were unworthy of further study, infuriating Hynek.
Now fully embedded in Project Blue Book, and fully aware of what he was up against, Hynek approached the UFO problem from a new perspective, that of an open-minded investigator. He started to use his position to challenge the scientific community, famously telling a gathering of optical physicists that “Ridicule is not part of the scientific method.” He polled fellow astronomers and found that an astonishing 11% of them had seen a UFO, but most were afraid to report them. Sent out to conduct his first-ever field investigation of a UFO event, a mass sighting in Rapid City, South Dakota, and Bismarck, North Dakota, Hynek found the case far more unsettling than Ruppelt and the Blue Book staff had claimed, and he criticized their findings. He gained a new ally in this work, as former student Jennie Gluck took on the position of Hynek’s assistant and soon became an invaluable aide in working with, for, and sometimes against, the Air Force.
Just as he was building up steam in his UFO endeavors, however, Hynek was recruited by the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956. His mission was to establish a global network of tracking stations in anticipation of the United States launching the first artificial satellite into earth orbit. It was a significant opportunity for Hynek, and he approached the task with zeal, setting up a dozen satellite tracking stations around the world and equipping them with electronic and optical measuring instruments so advanced that many had to be invented specifically for the project. When the Soviets beat the US into space with Sputnik, newspapers and TV networks turned to Hynek to explain to the American public what had happened, and Hynek instantly became a voice of reassurance to millions, one of the most famous and respected scientists in the country.
In 1960, Hynek took a position as chair of the astronomy department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and began some of his most productive years as an astronomer. Project Stargazer was his ambitious but doomed attempt to raise telescopes above the atmosphere in high-altitude balloons. The Image Orthicon optical-video hybrid telescope, meanwhile, allowed Hynek to collect far more starlight than a standard photographic imaging system. With it his team produced unprecedented images of the heavens and pioneered the future of astronomy in electronic imagery to replace film.
Even as Hynek made his mark in the scientific world, a series of high-profile UFO cases brought him back to Project Blue Book again and again. In the 1959 Father Gill case, a minister and his flock in Papua New Guinea made visual contact with the occupants of a UFO, and communicated with them by waving their arm. The 1961 Barney and Betty Hill case introduced the concept of alien abduction to the American psyche, and the 1964 Lonnie Zamora case in Socorro, New Mexico, included both UFO occupants and physical evidence of a UFO landing. Each case in its own way challenged Hynek’s assumptions about the UFO phenomenon and brought him closer to the limitations of science.
At Northwestern, Hynek quietly began to assemble an informal UFO study group that included Dr. Jacques Vallée, William T. Powers, Fred Beckman, and Don Hanlon, among others. “The Invisible College” brought together interested, sympathetic scientists and professionals in a cross-disciplinary team to study the UFO phenomenon while hidden in plain sight. Leveraging Hynek’s access to Project Blue Book’s vast archives of UFO reports, the group began to search for patterns and commonalities in unexplained UFO reports. In essence, Hynek was now playing Johannes Kepler to the Air Force’s Tycho Brahe, and he set out to make sense of the vast accumulation of data in the Project Blue Book files.
A 1966 mass UFO sighting in southern Michigan grabbed national headlines and became a turning point in Hynek’s career. His investigation of the two main sightings was hurried and hampered by intense pressures from the Air Force and the frantic media, and his own ill health (he had broken his jaw a week earlier). When he announced at a press conference that the UFOs might have been swamp gas, all hell broke loose. Hynek was ridiculed for what many believed was either an ignorant denial of the reality of the Michigan UFOs or a deliberate attempt to mislead the public and protect the Air Force. Hynek returned to Evanston under a firestorm of bad publicity.
Paradoxically, the great swamp gas debacle made Hynek an overnight celebrity and the go-to authority for all things UFO. As his mailbox filled with letters from admirers and UFO witnesses around the world, politicians in Michigan demanded a congressional hearing into the Air Force’s shoddy treatment of their state. Future President and then-Rep. Gerald R. Ford was one of those outraged. Hynek took advantage of his moment before Congress to make a plea for an unbiased scientific study of the UFO phenomenon, and his message hit home. Hynek triumphed, as the House Armed Services Committee endorsed the idea of a university study to determine whether UFOs constituted an objectively real phenomenon that warranted scientific investigation. When the University of Colorado project—often labeled the “Condon Committee” because it was directed by skeptical physicist Edward U. Condon—was begun later in 1966, Hynek believed that his moment of vindication had at last arrived.
As the University of Colorado project plodded along, Hynek poured his energy into the construction of two new observatories for Northwestern, one on the shore of Lake Michigan and another in the mountains of New Mexico. The Corralitos, New Mexico, observatory came to be one of Hynek’s proudest accomplishments, and at its helm he discovered a staggering number of supernovas, establishing his legacy in the field of astronomy.
After two years of conflict, scandal and embarrassment, the Condon Committee declared that UFOs were not worthy of serious attention, and the Air Force soon cancelled Project Blue Book and removed itself from the study of UFOs for good (just as it had intended in establishing the University study in the first place). Suddenly free to say whatever he pleased about the UFO phenomenon, Hynek became a strong public advocate for continued study of UFOs while continuing to investigate the endless UFO reports that came his way. As his work became more public, however, so did his detractors. Strangely, because of his insistence on adhering to the facts and to the scientific method, he often appeared to be simply refusing to say which side he was on, which antagonized UFO believers and UFO skeptics alike.
In his first book, The UFO Experience (1972, Henry Regnery), Hynek spelled out the essential elements of a UFO event and introduced his influential UFO classification system, including the now-famous “Close Encounter” terminology. Riding high on his popularity, Hynek made a long-anticipated trip to Australia and New Guinea, where he finally met the famous Father Gill. Even after 14 years, the testimony of Gill and the other witnesses was strong enough to convince Hynek that they had experienced a true “Close Encounter of the Third Kind.” This was not, however, an entirely easy pill for Hynek to swallow, as he was personally troubled by the idea of UFO occupants.
Those troubles grew deeper in 1973 when he was sent by NBC News to investigate the alleged abduction of two fishermen in Pascagoula, Mississippi, by robotic beings that emerged from a glowing UFO. Convinced by their testimony that the two men had had a very real experience, but unable to define what that experience was, Hynek found himself questioning the very nature of reality. Once again he found it necessary to remind his skeptical colleagues that “Ridicule is not part of the scientific method,” but nonetheless found himself on the losing side of a TV debate with a scornful Professor Carl Sagan who caustically dismissed what happened at Pascagoula. Hynek’s response to Sagan’s barbs was an organizational one; he announced the creation of his Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), the first-ever national organization dedicated to the scientific study of UFOs.
As Hynek established a nationwide UFO reporting system for CUFOS, the young organization got its first important case—the Coyne event in October 1973. This spectacular encounter, in which a military helicopter nearly crashed after a close call with a cigar-shaped object, became the gold standard for UFO cases, and helped to established CUFOS’ stature in the field of ufology. Notably, the case attracted the attention of Hynek’s old friend and colleague Jennie Zeidman (née Gluck), who investigated the case independently of CUFOS and agreed with Hynek’s verdict of “unexplained.”
CUFOS quickly lived up to its early promise, establishing a regular periodical (the International UFO Reporter) and a peer-reviewed scientific journal (the Journal of UFO Studies). The number for CUFOS’ pioneering national reporting hotline was distributed to law-enforcement officers around the country, enabling them to quickly report local UFO events and request that CUFOS send investigators to the scene.
The year 1975 brought a second book, The Edge of Reality (1976, Henry Regnery), co-written with Dr. Jacques Vallée, in which Hynek openly expressed his doubts about the state of ufology, his regrets over his early experience as a UFO debunker, and his confusion over the true nature of the phenomenon.
Meanwhile, Hynek had been working with the National Archives to make available to the public the entire collection of Project Blue Book files. He hoped to select the best cases for a massive 3-volume set on reports to the military, but when the initial plans could not be carried out, Hynek had to settle for a stripped-down paperback. This became his third UFO book, The Hynek UFO Report (1976, Dell), which for the first time divulged the secrets and foul-ups of Project Blue Book and the Colorado Project. Despite its diminished size and scope, the new book only added to the buzz and attracted more followers.
Soon after, the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind made belief in UFOs fashionable, and brought new publicity to Hynek and CUFOS (even if it didn’t fully reflect Hynek’s true beliefs). More Americans than ever now believed there was “something out there” even as Hynek wondered more and more what “out there” actually meant.
After repeated refusals by Northwestern to support his UFO work, Hynek retired from the university in 1978 to dedicate his full attention to CUFOS. Always a popular speaker, he continued to take every opportunity to publicly chide his fellow scientists for their “temporal provincialism” where UFOs were concerned, while his reluctance to settle on any one explanation for UFOs continued to irritate those on both sides of the UFO question.
After a reasonably successful period in the 1970s, funding for UFO research diminished in the 1980s, and UFOs retreated a bit from the news. As a consequence, CUFOS diminished in size and scope, eventually moving into the Hynek home in Evanston in 1981. This new physical limitation was somehow fitting, however, for after decades of insisting on a rigid scientific approach to UFO research, Hynek now openly flirted with paranormal explanations for at least a portion of the phenomenon.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek entered the supersensible realm on April 27, 1986, still questioning, still exploring, still puzzling over the 20% unknowns, albeit diminished in his view to 5%. One short month before his death, he took a long drive into the Arizona desert with his wife Mimi and close friend Jennie Zeidman to keep an appointment with a long lost visitor. For the second time in his life, Hynek basked in the light of Halley’s Comet. —Biography by Mark O’Connell