Scientist who investigated UFOs for 20 years for the government coined the phrase Close Encounters of the Third Kind - and had a cameo in Spielberg’s hit film - turned from skeptic to believer, inspiring a new TV show.
Forty-five years before the catchphrase, The Truth is Out There, was on the tip of many tongues, a man searched for scientific explanations for the inexplicable lights and objects that streaked and whizzed and zoomed across the night sky.
Dr J. Allen Hynek was no Fox Mulder but rather the real deal: an accomplished astronomer the United States government tasked to help figure out what was happening in the skies after World War II.
In the late 1940s, ‘_flying saucer_’ reports flooded in from across the country and the air force had no idea what to do with them. Hynek, a professor, was asked to consult for the air force’s Project Sign, which was to investigate them.
Initially, the man of science pegged the sightings as a fad, a manifestation of a country suffering from the aftereffects of the war and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But as the unidentified flying object reports continued unabated, Hynek went from labelling them ‘sheer nonsense’ to calling for the phenomenon to be scientifically studied to declaring that he saw UFOs twice. In the process, he satisfied neither side of the UFO debate.
An encouraging father of five children, Hynek would become a celebrity of sorts, found the Center for UFO Studies, write several books, and coin the phrase ‘_Close Encounters of the Third Kind_,’ complete with a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 hit movie of the same name.
‘He was this very straight-laced, by-the-book scientist and astronomer who, you know, only believed what he could see,’ Mark O’Connell, author of ‘The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs’.
A new scripted TV series, ‘Project Blue Book,’ on HISTORY takes a fictionalized look at Hynek, his life, his investigations into UFOs during the early 1950s, a time period gripped by the Cold War and nuclear war fears, and the question that we are still wrestling with today: are we alone in the universe.
Born May 1, 1910 in Chicago, Hynek was just five days old when Halley’s Comet passed by the Earth – a celestial moment that would be repeated toward the end of his life when he died at aged 75 on April 27, 1986.
As a young boy, he battled a bout of scarlet fever, was restricted to bed for several weeks, and spent his time reading everything he could, including ‘Elements of Astronomy,’ according to O’Connell’s 2017 book.
The die was cast, and a telescope given to him at aged 10 sealed his pursuit of astronomy. In 1932, Hynek graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and married his first wife, Martha Alexander. After getting his PhD in astrophysics, he started teaching at Ohio State University in Columbus three years later.
Strange sky sightings seeped into the public consciousness during World War II when pilots described seeing unusual lights and objects on missions – dubbing them ‘foo fighters’ – around 1944. (There were other stories and tales before then, of course.) But the dam broke after a private pilot and businessman Kenneth Arnold recounted that he saw nine ‘bright saucer-like objects’ race by at 1,200 miles per hour in June 1947, according to news reports at the time.
‘All summer long reports kept coming from every corner of the country… The trouble was there was not a soul on earth who knew what to do with them,’ O’Connell wrote.
‘”Confusion” was the watchword for the flying saucer phenomenon in those early days.’
In 1948, the government set up Project Sign, which would later be called Grudge and then Blue Book, to investigate the reports. It was headquartered at an air force base near Dayton, Ohio, which is not so far from Columbus, and O’Connell wrote that the air force ‘needed a professional astronomer to validate’ its conclusions. Enter Hynek.
By then, Hynek’s first marriage to Martha Alexander had ended in 1939 in divorce. He married Mimi Curtis in 1942, and they would stay together until his death in 1986, and have five children together – Scott, Roxane, Joel, Paul and Ross.
‘Our dad is known in some circles especially now for his work with UFOs, but first and foremost he was a scientist and an astronomer. One of the things that I think that he inculcated in us was just this love of science and learning about the world,’ Paul Hynek, who worked as a consultant on the TV show with his brother Joel.
‘Our dinner table if it was not interrupted by phone calls from people reporting UFOs and whatnot, it was about ideas.’
Joel Hynek added: ‘One of the things my father instilled in all of us was this love of science and the idea that everyone should keep an open mind to whatever’s out there.’
Initially, Hynek buttressed the government’s findings and conclusions.
‘In 1948, when I first heard of the (flying saucers), I thought they were sheer nonsense, as any scientist would have,’ Hynek wrote, according to O’Connell’s book.
‘Most of the early reports were quite vague: “I went into the bathroom for a drink of water and looked out of the window and saw a bright light in the sky. It was moving up and down and sideways. When I looked again, it was gone.” ‘
Hynek thought the sightings were a nervous public reaction to Pearl Harbor coupled with what was then a current worry about Soviet bombers attacking the United States, O’Connell explained.
The first time Hynek consulted for the air force in 1948, O’Connell said: ‘They just plopped a pile of case reports on a desk in front of him and said please go through all of these and tell us which ones are just misidentifications of astronomical objects.’
‘And Hynek thought, okay, easy work, he went through them all. He was able to explain away about 80 percent of them and the other 20 percent didn’t really bother him. He thought with enough time and resources they could probably explain away those 20 percent also.’
In the TV show, ‘Project Blue Book,' almost right off the bat, Hynek, who is played by Aidan Gillen of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame, questions the government’s conclusions – meteors, a weather balloon – for the unexplained things people see and experience. He is also given a partner, a fictional Captain Michael Quinn, played by Michael Malarkey. The show is set in the early 1950s, a time when the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war loomed large.
David O'Leary, the show’s creator, said that the real Project Blue Book looked at over 12,000 UFO reports and roughly 700 of those remain unexplained. Since childhood, he has had a fascination with the question of whether humans are alone in the universe.
‘I personally don’t think that you can look at that the question honestly without examining the UFO phenomenon,’ O'Leary, who conceived of the TV show as the ‘real life X-Files set in the time of Mad Men,’.
‘I also became fascinated with, you know, America’s very strange and mysterious history with this phenomenon and, of course one of the big big pieces of that is the fact that we really did openly investigate unidentified flying objects in our skies officially though the U.S. Air Force.’
‘The show is a piece of entertainment but my goal always was for it to also spark curiosity, towards educating people about these real life cases and about this era.’
In the show, which airs on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern time, Hynek and Quinn crisscross the country – from Fargo, North Dakota to Flatwoods, West Virginia to Lubbock, Texas – to investigate. Each episode is based on a real case or a collection of real incidents. In the series’ second episode, the pair looks into the Flatwoods monster, where a mother and her two young children insist they saw a spaceship and an alien creature. To quell panic in the town, Hynek puts the sighting down to an owl.
It took the real Hynek longer to come around. O’Connell said that after working for the air force in 1948 and 1949, he went back to teaching ‘and kind of forgot about it.’
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