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In his 1972 book, “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry,” Dr. J. Allen Hynek introduced two divisions of UFO reports: those seen from a distance and those seen close-up – his now-famous Close Encounters classification system. Reports from a distance include UFOs seen at night (“Nocturnal Lights”), during the day (“Daylight Discs”) and on radar (“Radar-Visual”).
Then there are Close Encounters of the First Kind, in which observers come within a few hundred feet of the UFO without being physically affected; the Second Kind, involving physical evidence such as burn marks on people, trees, or the ground; and the Third Kind, where witnesses report seeing humanoid entities (“the so-called aliens” as Dr. Hynek said).
During production of Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Dr. Hynek served as a technical adviser. His brief cameo appearance in the dazzling final space ship scene – sporting his signature goatee, suit coat, spectacles, and pipe – was also immortalized as a Trivial Pursuit question (with his name misspelled). In a 1985 Omni Magazine interview, Dr. Hynek recalled passing a Hollywood movie theater and seeing lines of people several blocks long waiting to see the film. “Boy what a thrill!” he exclaimed.
CUFOS and the UFO Phenomenon Today
Reports of UFO sightings in the U.S. number in the thousands every year, with thousands more reported globally. Dr. Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), which still operates today, continues to treat sightings seriously and scientifically, said Mark Rodeghier, Scientific Director of CUFOS and a volunteer since its early days.
“Dr. Hynek’s vision for the Center was for it to be a scientific think tank, not a membership organization like other UFO groups,” explained Dr. Rodeghier. “We try to be the go-to place for scientific data and analysis, and trustworthy thoughts, opinions and evaluations of UFO data, cases and so forth.”
CUFOS cannot investigate every report, so they devote their resources to cases that involve physical evidence such as marks on the ground, vehicle damage, or an injury. Could such clues be proof of extraterrestrials? Dr. Hynek thought it was unlikely, saying that because the universe is so vast, visitors would have to travel as fast as or faster than the speed of light in order to make it here.
“He firmly believed in UFOs being unexplained and that people saw real things, but his scientific training and mindset predisposed him against the idea of UFOs as aliens,” said Dr. Rodeghier. “He didn’t believe that he knew what UFOs were at all, except that they were a mystery.”
CUFOS has resided at several locations around Evanston, in Glenview, and in Chicago on Peterson Avenue. After that office closed in 2009, CUFOS distributed its materials among several volunteers’ homes, including Dr. Rodeghier’s on Chicago’s northwest side.
NU Squirms Over Its Rogue Professor
As chairman of Northwestern’s Astronomy Department, Dr. Hynek was a diligent researcher and fundraiser, as well as a popular teacher, “noted for his humor and his eccentric appearance,” according to a biography in Northwestern’s archives. His efforts yielded two observatories – one in Las Cruces, N.M., and the striking Lindheimer Astrophysical Research Center, whose white twin telescope domes were built at the water’s edge on NU’s Evanston campus in 1966 (and torn down in 1995). He also pioneered “image-orthicon astronomy,” which helped improve imaging of astronomical objects such as supernovae in faint galaxies. But for all his notable astronomy research and academic work, his association with UFOs made Northwestern administrators uneasy.
“NU wasn’t happy about his involvement with Project Bluebook,” said Dr. Rodeghier, which they knew about when he was hired. Project Bluebook was a successor to Project Grudge and, earlier, Project Sign at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio, through which the Air Force handled UFO reports. The Air Force contracted with Dr. Hynek to essentially explain away or debunk such sightings.
NU refused Dr. Hynek’s request for CUFOS office space, and even asked him not to use Northwestern letterhead for UFO-related correspondence, which did not make Dr. Hynek happy either.
Author Mark O’Connell said that Northwestern was “undoubtedly very proud and happy to have Dr. Hynek on their roster,” but that they were walking a kind of tightrope with him.
“Hynek brought a lot of good things to the university, and they were appreciative of it,” said Mr. O’Connell, “but Northwestern didn’t want people thinking the university was studying UFOs.” Or bankrolling it, he added. Mr. O’Connell wrote the J. Allen Hynek biography, “The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs.”
Earthlings Still See Curious Things in the Sky
Dr. Hynek’s UFO phenomenon is in full swing today, with organizations like the National UFO Reporting Center and UFO Stalker publishing hundreds of U.S. sightings every month on their websites. World UFO Day is celebrated every July 2, the same date as the legendary 1947 “Roswell Incident,” an alien-spaceship-crash-and-government-cover-up story that still attracts interest and generates conspiracy theories. (Some people celebrate World UFO Day on June 24, the day pilot Kenneth Arnold saw his flying saucers in 1947.) The Mutual UFO Network recently staged its 49th annual UFO symposium. And UFO clubs, institutes, societies and museums around the world cater to a range of skeptics, believers and people who are simply curious.
Last December, former Defense Department intelligence officer Luis Elizondo revealed that from 2007 to 2012 the Pentagon had been quietly investigating UFO reports under its Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which Mr. Elizondo led for a time. The news accompanied several videos apparently showing U.S. Navy fighter pilots tracking unknown objects on their radar. Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace openly stated during a Sixty Minutes interview in 2017 that he believes aliens have visited earth, and he is allegedly warehousing metal alloys taken from “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
Are UFOs Still Worth Studying?
Echoing Dr. Hynek’s campaign for UFOs to be taken seriously, physicist Kevin Knuth recently penned an article asking “Are we alone?” and asserting that the question is worthy of scientific inquiry. He acknowledged that UFOs are a taboo topic, considered by many to be pseudo-science, but also that there is evidence from UFO reports that merits further investigation. His article received criticism, he said, but also praise from the scientific community.
“I’m finding there are more scientists than I expected who find this compelling and who are willing to talk to me about it,” said Dr. Knuth, an associate professor of Physics at State University of New York, University at Albany, and a former NASA computer scientist. Dr. Knuth’s main argument, like Dr. Hynek’s, is that government UFO studies have not been scientific and not all their data has been declassified, so it is not clear if anything extraterrestrial has ever been found. He said that news about AATIP, the U.S. Navy videos, Robert Bigelow and articles about other pilot encounters give the topic some traction. “With each one of these events, it gives way a bit more and convinces a few more people that maybe it isn’t silly after all,” he said. Recently, an interviewer asked Dr. Knuth what he believes about UFOs.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” he responded. “I need evidence. There hasn’t been a scientific study, so there’s no concrete evidence available. I find it difficult when I hear professional scientists say, ‘Oh this is nonsense.’ Well, you don’t know that it’s nonsense. It hasn’t been scientifically studied. That’s what needs to be rectified.”
In Pursuit of a Mystery
Dr. Hynek retired from Northwestern in 1978, but kept working with CUFOS. Several years later he moved to Arizona with his wife, Mimi, to open a privately funded UFO research center. During his 1985 Omni Magazine interview with editor Pamela Weintraub, he stated that the facility would be a “thoroughly professional operation,” employing psychologists, physicists, polygraph experts and “even magicians” to investigate selected UFO sightings.
“As the years pass, we would accumulate a set of technical reports acceptable to the National Academy of Sciences,” he said. “I hope to demonstrate to my scientific colleagues that the subject is worthy of their serious attention and that ridicule is not part of the scientific method.” But the new center never came to fruition.
Just over a year after the Omni interview, Dr. Hynek passed away in Arizona at age 76, under the sweeping, luminous tail of Halley’s Comet – the rare astronomical event that bookended his life. His fascination, and sometimes frustration, with the UFO mystery kept him in hot pursuit almost until the end.
“One wonders why study the subject at all,” he told Ms. Weintraub. “I’ve gone through ups and downs, times when I felt that it was just pointless. Then all of a sudden a case comes along that reawakens my interest and I say, ‘My God, how do you explain this one?’”