Dr. Hynek teaching, probably at the Ohio State University.

Northwestern University has long held the open secret that one of its most popular astronomy professors was also a world renowned seeker of … unidentified flying objects. That’s right: UFOs. Space ships. Flying saucers.  Extraterrestrials. Little green men. Evanston’s own Big Ten school had perhaps the first “ufologist” on staff, or at least the first one to publicly support UFO research.

When Dr. J. Allen Hynek was not teaching, researching stellar spectra or tracking satellites, he was reviewing reports of UFO sightings and sometimes traveling around the country to investigate sightings himself. While briefly moonlighting as a scientific consultant for the U.S. Air Force’s UFO program in the late 1940s, he determined that most sightings were aircraft, meteors, even planets and stars. But over time Dr. Hynek realized that the remaining “close encounters” – a phrase he coined – could not be identified. Furthermore, some of the most compelling reports came from police officers, military personnel, airline pilots, even university professors and scientists like himself.

Because the term UFO came to mean aliens and space ships, people have often dismissed sightings as illusions, hoaxes and flat out nonsense. Nonetheless, Dr. Hynek spent many decades calling for serious examination of the most puzzling cases and even founded a UFO research center in Evanston dedicated to that effort. He never claimed that UFOs were extraterrestrials, although he became open to the possibility; rather, he maintained that reports of UFO sightings, whether from professionals or everyday citizens, deserved unbiased scientific investigation.

A Scientist Captivated by UFOs
“At this time there is no valid scientific proof that we have been visited by spaceships,” Dr. Hynek stated during the 1966 CBS show “UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy” hosted by Walter Cronkite. “I would say the great majority are balloons, meteors, satellites, air craft seen with the sun glinting off of them and birds.” The remaining unidentifiable sightings, he said, “intrigue me in the same way that a good mystery story intrigues me. And I’d like to get the solution.”

The journey to that solution began in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, where Josef Allen Hynek was born in May 1910 under the sweeping luminous tail of Halley’s Comet. He received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 1935 and went on to teach at the Ohio State University, help develop a World War II explosive device at Johns Hopkins University and
design a worldwide satellite tracking program for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in anticipation of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. The tracking program, which employed enormous telescope cameras, worked in conjunction with SAO’s Operation Moonwatch, the global citizen science project that logged the first Sputnik sightings. Dr. Hynek returned to Chicago in 1960 as chair of Northwestern’s astronomy department and director of the Dearborn Observatory.

While Dr. Hynek was building his reputation in astrophysics and academia, the U.S. Air Force was fielding reports of strange flying things that would come to be known as UFOs. A pivotal sighting came in 1947 from private pilot Kenneth Arnold, who described seeing disc-shaped objects in the sky and another in 1948 when Air National Guard pilot Thomas Mantell flew after a cone-shaped object until he crashed his small plane in a field.

The Air Force handled these and other UFO reports through Project Sign at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and contracted with Dr. Hynek to essentially explain away or debunk such sightings. Dr. Hynek obliged, declaring Arnold’s discs – which settled into popular culture as “flying saucers” – to be misidentified aircraft, and Mantell’s cone to be the brightly shining planet Venus. By the time his contract ended, Dr. Hynek was able to explain about 80% of the sightings and return to his academic work.

But the “UFO problem” did not go away, and over several years Project Sign was followed by Project Grudge and then Project Blue Book. Determined to put UFOs to rest for good, the Air Force again enlisted Dr. Hynek, who was surprised to learn that UFO reports had continued to accumulate. While the majority could still be explained as natural phenomena or earth-based aircraft, at least 20% remained a mystery. Thus began Dr. Hynek’s parallel career as an advocate for the scientific study of UFOs, which proceeded for years under the public radar until something odd happened in Michigan.

A UFO Celebrity Arises From Swamp Gas
In March 1966, dozens of people in Dexter and Hillsdale, Michigan, reported seeing lights – posssibly, some thought, from an aircraft – brightening, dimming, moving about and disappearing. The Air Force called in Dr. Hynek who, after interviewing witnesses and examining areas where the lights appeared, speculated at a press conference that they may have seen swamp gas – an intermittent glow caused by the combustion of methane from decaying matter in marshes and swamps. That answer did not sit well with citizens of the Wolverine state.

“People in Michigan were so offended because they thought the Air Force was calling them all kooks,” explained Mark O’Connell, author of the J. Allen Hynek biography, “The Close Encounters Man: How One Man
Made the World Believe in UFOs.”

Dr. Hynek became the target of media attacks, public ridicule and scientists who said he had made a fool of himself. Even UFO fans look at that case as “the big moment of betrayal when Dr. Hynek stabbed them in the back,” said Mr. O’Connell, who is an Adjunct Professor of Screenwriting at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media. But then the tide turned. His incoming correspondence “mushroomed” and suddenly Dr. Hynek became an internationally known UFO expert.

“People all over the world started writing to tell him about their weird sightings and theories about where UFOs come from,” said Mr. O’Connell. “His image and credibility for some reason were strangely enhanced. The whole thing turned around and made him a hero.” It is
still hard to explain, he said.

With Dr. Hynek’s celebrity came the ongoing task of affirming himself not as a “believer” but as a scientist fascinated with UFO reports, and he encouraged his scientific colleagues – specifically physical and social scientists – to be open minded about studying UFOs. He often said, “the U in UFO simply means unidentified,” and that the term did not mean space people or flying saucers, a phrase he said was “unfortunate” and “opens the door to a great deal of lampooning.”

“I don’t think it is space people, although I would be delighted if it turned out that way because as an astronomer I think it would make astronomy even more interesting than it is,” he said during the 1966 CBS UFO special.  “If people insist that space vehicles exist, I say fine, the burden of proof is on you.”

Evanston Becomes a UFO Mecca
The Air Force ended Project Blue Book in 1969, having determined that UFOs posed no national security threat, showed no sign of advanced technology and were not extraterrestrial in nature. Concerned that past and future UFO data would be lost without a reporting center, Dr. Hynek and some like-minded academic colleagues offered to receive UFO reports at his NU office, reassuring people they would be treated seriously and “without fear of ridicule and publicity.”

In 1973, a room in Dr. Hynek’s Evanston home became the new Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) – persistent UFO reports from around the world (whose contents he described as “bizarre and tremendously intriguing”), with similar descriptions, and often from “highly credible technically trained people.”

In its early days, CUFOS attracted researchers and UFO enthusiasts from around the world, most notably U Thant, the Burmese former Secretary-General of the United Nations. Donations and sales of CUFOS publications helped support the Center and its publications – International UFO Reporter magazine and the peer-reviewed Journal of UFO Studies – both no longer in circulation.

Next Time: Close Encounters of Many Kinds

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...