The Strange and Wonderful Life of a Ufology Legend


Every area of science, technology, or indeed every field worth pursuing has its so-called “rock stars.” These are the people who have proven to be so prominent in their respective areas that they have almost transcended normal reality to become larger than life gods of their respective fields, going down to imprint upon history an indelible legacy that will never fade. Within the realm of UFOs and supposed alien encounters, there have been a few such people who have carved out a place here for all time and even shaped the direction of the field, and one of these must certainly be a legendary man who managed to change the face of UFO studies, put it on the map, and clear a path for ufology that goes well into the future.

The man who would become one of the most legendary figures the UFO field has ever seen and who would change the entire way we classify such encounters started out having nothing to do with alien or ships from outer space. Before World War II, Dr. Josef Allen Hynek had completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the Yerkes Observatory, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, after which he had joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio State University, specializing in stellar evolution and in the identification of spectroscopic binary stars. During the war, he worked as a civilian scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory developing new defense technologies, and it was in the years just after the war when his life would go from a mainstream scientist with no connection or even interest in UFOs whatsoever to diverge onto a path that would take him into a whole new realm of the weird.

In 1947, the U.S. government was not a little concerned about a rash of reports of mysterious objects in the skies that was hitting the news and baffling military experts. At this point in time, the field of UFOs was still in its infancy, and it wasn’t a phenomenon that anyone really knew what to do with, so the United States Air Force established a program called Project Sign in 1948 in order to look into these bizarre and very persistent reports. Since the idea at the time was that the reports could be the result of people misidentifying various mundane astronomical phenomena such as such as planets, stars, or meteors, Hynek was approached by the military to serve as a scientific advisor for their team.

Hynek on the left, with other notable ufologist Jacques Vallee

At the time, Hynek was far from a believer in UFOs, and was actually a pretty hardcore skeptic. When some personnel from Wright-Patterson Air Force base first approached him about joining Project Sign and started talking about “flying saucers,” Hynek was more amused than anything else, taking it all with a raised eyebrow. He thought the whole flying saucer craze was just a passing fad, easily explainable through mundane means and unreliable witnesses, once calling the whole subject “utterly ridiculous,” and would once say “I had scarcely heard of UFOs in 1948 and, like every other scientist I knew, assumed that they were nonsense.” This attitude followed him when he joined the program, where he actively sought to debunk the various cases he looked at, eventually dismissing most of them as just mundane phenomena, with only 20% were truly unexplainable, and even then Hynek believed that there were rational explanations to be found for those, none of which involved spaceships or aliens. Hynek did a lot of work actively debunking these myriad cases, he was good at it, and he even enjoyed it.

In February of 1949, Project Sign was succeeded by Project Grudge, which was even more dismissive of UFO reports, and officially and in no uncertain terms deemed them to be unworthy of further study, completely attributable to conventional phenomena, mass hysteria, deliberate hoaxes, and mental illness. Hynek himself left to pursue other scientific endeavors completely unrelated to UFOs at Ohio State, still believing that there was nothing to the phenomena and leaving it in his past. However, people were still seeing them all over the place, with some of these sightings by military personnel and other qualified witnesses, and so the U.S. Air Force resurrected their program to study these cases in 1952, this time under the name Project Blue Book. Hynek was convinced to come back in the same capacity as he had been in for Project Sign, and once again he dutifully went about dismissing and debunking UFO reports left and right, but this time his mind would be gradually changed. It all began as Hynek did more work out in the field and spoke to more witnesses, where he became rather fascinated with just how seemingly honest and genuinely shaken these people were by what they had seen. This made him start to believe there was something more to it all, and he would say:

The witnesses I interviewed could have been lying, could have been insane or could have been hallucinating collectively—but I do not think so. Their standing in the community, their lack of motive for perpetration of a hoax, their own puzzlement at the turn of events they believe they witnessed, and often their great reluctance to speak of the experience—all lend a subjective reality to their UFO experience.

He was also increasingly puzzled by the UFO sightings made by very traditionally reliable witnesses, such as military pilots, radar operators, and police officers. It was becoming clearer to him that UFOs were not just being seen by uneducated people out in the woods, but that it was a far-reaching phenomenon being witnesses by honest people from all walks of life. It was looking like there was something more to it all than he had ever imagined. From then on he began to take UFOs more seriously, becoming increasingly wary of Project Blue Book’s methods of debunking reports and their unyielding stance that UFOs simply could not possibly exist as anything other than mundane things. He would later further explain of what had changed his mind on the matter:

One was the completely negative and unyielding attitude of the Air Force. They wouldn’t give UFOs the chance of existing, even if they were flying up and down the street in broad daylight. Everything had to have an explanation. I began to resent that, even though I basically felt the same way, because I still thought they weren’t going about it in the right way. You can’t assume that everything is black no matter what. Secondly, the caliber of the witnesses began to trouble me. Quite a few instances were reported by military pilots, for example, and I knew them to be fairly well-trained, so this is when I first began to think that, well, maybe there was something to all this.

Hynek began to disagree with his colleagues at Project Blue Book more often, as well as despise the ridicule that UFO witnesses typically received from the public. He lamented the fact that he had been part of a scientific committee called the Robertson Panel, which had concluded that there was nothing anomalous about UFOs and that an aggressive public relations campaign should be enacted to further debunk UFO cases, which to Hynek had not only tarnished the reputation of UFO studies as a legitimate pursuit, but had also caused the loss of reams of discarded data that might have been useful to researchers on the matter. He criticized Project Blue Book’s staff, their methods, and their mindset, contempt brewing in his mind. He believed that Project Blue Book was not going about things in a scientific way, trying to fit everything into their preconceived notions and frustrating him to the point that he once called them the “Society for the Explanation of the Uninvestigated.” Hynek now believed that ridicule and staunch skepticism were ruining the scientific pursuit of real answers for the UFO phenomena, and he would say:

Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is. The steady flow of reports, often made in concert by reliable observers, raises questions of scientific obligation and responsibility. Is there any residue that is worthy of scientific attention? Or, if there isn’t, does not an obligation exist to say so to the public—not in words of open ridicule but seriously, to keep faith with the trust the public places in science and scientists? As a scientist I must be mindful of the lessons of the past; all too often it has happened that matters of great value to science were overlooked because the new phenomenon did not fit the accepted scientific outlook of the time.

Despite this behind-the-scenes friction between Hynek and Project Blue Book, he would continue to stay with the program, mostly because they held so much data on the subject and so many cases that he had access to as long as he stayed. Indeed, he would be with Project Blue Book until it was dissolved in 1969, investigating many well-publicized UFO sightings during his time there. By the time the project ended, Hynek was known as being perhaps the world’s foremost expert on UFOs, appearing in countless articles and TV shows. He had gone from skeptic to pretty much the face of the emerging field of ufology at the time.

After Project Blue Book, Hynek pursued his own UFO research projects as side gigs to his more mainstream university work, such as being the founder and first head of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in 1973. He also made many other contributions to UFO studies, for instance he was one of the first people to conduct scientific analysis of trace physical evidence supposedly left by UFOs, and he championed the idea of trying to initiate a centralized, United Nations authority on UFOs, even giving an impassioned speech on the subject to them. He was also one of the very first to propose that UFO occupants were perhaps not aliens from other worlds, but from other dimensions. Indeed, he was well known for his musings on the origins of UFOs and their occupants, ranging from the traditional idea that they are aliens from space, to the more fringe ideas that they are from other dimensions or are even purely psychic beings, or maybe even a mix of all of the above. Many of his ideas were completely groundbreaking for their time, and Hynek has said of the origins of UFOs:

I ask you to explain—quantitatively, not qualitatively—the reported phenomena of materialization and dematerialization, of shape changes, of the noiseless hovering in the Earth’s gravitational field, accelerations that—for an appreciable mass—require energy sources far beyond present capabilities—even theoretical capabilities, the well-known and often reported E-M (electro-magnetic interference) effect, the psychic effects on percipients, including purported telepathic communications.

A few good sightings a year, over the world, would bolster the extraterrestrial hypothesis—but many thousands every year? From remote regions of space? And to what purpose? To scare us by stopping cars, and disturbing animals, and puzzling us with their seemingly pointless antics? Do we have two aspects of one phenomenon or two different sets of phenomena? I do believe that the UFO phenomenon as a whole is real, but I do not mean necessarily that it’s just one thing. We must ask whether the diversity of observed UFOs … all spring from the same basic source, as do weather phenomena, which all originate in the atmosphere”, or whether they differ “as a rain shower differs from a meteor, which in turn differs from a cosmic-ray shower. We must not ask simply which hypothesis can explain the most facts, but rather which hypothesis can explain the most puzzling facts.

I hold it entirely possible. that a technology exists, which encompasses both the physical and the psychic, the material and the mental. There are stars that are millions of years older than the sun. There may be a civilization that is millions of years more advanced than man’s. We have gone from Kitty Hawk to the moon in some seventy years, but it’s possible that a million-year-old civilization may know something that we don’t … I hypothesize an ‘M&M’ technology encompassing the mental and material realms. The psychic realms, so mysterious to us today, may be an ordinary part of an advanced technology.

One of Hynek’s biggest and most reverberating contributions to the field came with his first book, The UFO Experience, published in 1972 and widely thought of as one of the most important books in the UFO field to this day. In his seminal book, Hynek proposed a new kind of classification system for UFO incidents, which would revolutionize the field. In his pioneering system, now known as the Hynek Classification System, he categorizes relatively distant UFO sightings into three categories, with “nocturnal Lights” being ill-defined lights in the night sky that cannot be explained conventionally, “Daylight Discs” being clearly seen saucer shaped, metallic-appearing objects that can speed off or hover, and “Radar-Visual” cases, which are “unidentified “blips” on radar screens that coincide with and confirm simultaneous visual sightings by the same or other witnesses.” Closer encounters are also divided into three types of what he appropriately calls “Close Encounters.” According to his system, a Close Encounter of the First Kind is when a UFO is observed up close but leaves no evidence, whereas a Close Encounter of the Second Kind entails a UFO leaving behind physical traces such as burns on the ground or broken branches, and finally Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is when witnesses report seeing occupants in or near a UFO. He even came up with a classification system for physical evidence, divided into Physical Traces, Medical Records of those who have suffered physical effects from their encounters, Radarscope Photos, and Photographs, for which he insisted, “For proper analysis of a photo, the negative must be available and the photographer, witnesses and circumstances must be known.”

The Hynek Classification has become a mainstay in UFO studies, still used today and with even new categories added such as “Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind,” meaning alien abductions, and “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind,” entailing communication with alien entities. Hynek tirelessly investigated and studied UFOs right up to his death in 1986 at the age of 75, blazing a trail to legitimatize the field and turn it into an actual scientific pursuit. His work still influences the field today, and considering his many contributions to the field and his great efforts to make it more accepted by mainstream science, he is seen as a hero and legend within ufology, often cited as being one of the most influential and important UFO researchers who has ever lived. Not bad for someone who started out as a staunch skeptic and debunker of the field, but would become one of its greatest champions.

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