Astronomer J. Allen Hynek led Northwestern’s Astronomy Department into the Space Age and became the nation’s foremost expert on unidentified flying objects (UFOs). He oversaw the significant expansion of Northwestern’s Astronomy Department and made important contributions to his field, most notably by successfully incorporating television technology into telescopes for the first time. However, he was best known for his work on UFOs. First as an Air Force investigator and then as a lonely voice in the scientific community calling for more serious study of UFOs, he became the most important advocate of UFO research and inspired the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Like Mark Twain, Hynek was born and died as Halley’s Comet passed overhead. The coincidence was particularly appropriate. In an undated lecture, Hynek wrote: “There is one comet that connects the Age of Superstition with our present Age of Science–and that is Halley’s Comet.” He saw himself as a prophet preaching science to an age still too mired in superstition to tolerate the unexplainable. Halley’s Comet was therefore the perfect metaphor for Hynek. At the bottom of the page he scrawled a few lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
Josef Allen Hynek was born May 1, 1910 in Chicago to Czechoslovakian parents. He graduated from Crane Technical High School in 1927 and went on to the University of Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1931. As a graduate student he spent four years at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. He received his Ph.D. in 1935.
In 1936 Ohio State University hired Hynek as an instructor in the department of physics and astronomy. In 1939 he was promoted to assistant professor. He taught summer school at the Harvard College Observatory in 1941. While on leave from Ohio State from 1942 to 1946 Hynek worked on developing a proximity fuse for the Navy at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics laboratory. He returned to Ohio State in 1946 as associate professor and director of the McMillin Observatory. He was promoted in 1950 to full professor and became assistant dean of the Graduate School.
In 1948 Hynek began consulting on a new Air Force project at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Its purpose was to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. Because of his position at Ohio State, Hynek was a logical choice as a scientific advisor to the project. His involvement deepened when the Air Force reorganized its investigation as “Project Blue Book” in 1952.
Hynek took a leave from Ohio State in 1956 to join the effort to put the first satellite into space. As associate director of the optical tracking program at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Hynek was part of a team that set up a network of tracking stations around the world to observe the flight of the planned U.S. satellite. Created in 1956 as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the Satellite Tracking Program (STP) established twelve tracking stations around the world, located in Florida, New Mexico, Hawaii, Curacao, Peru, Argentina, Iran, South Africa, India, Spain, Japan, and Australia. Hynek was also involved in the design of a satellite tracking camera that was created by James C. Baker and Joseph Nunn for use in the twelve STP stations. The Moonwatch Division of STP was a program that organized and assisted groups of amateur astronomers who volunteered to collect data on artificial earth satellites.
On Oct. 4, 1957 the Soviet Union announced the stunning launch of Sputnik, the first successful artificial satellite. Hynek, along with his colleague Fred Whipple, conducted two press conferences a day to report on Sputnik’s progress and reassure the public of its safety. That same year, Hynek and his colleagues began a partnership with the Air Force to create a balloon-based astronomy program. Eventually dubbed Project Stargazer, the program developed slowly over the next few years, culminating in a few disappointing failures. Hynek would eventually give up on balloons, favoring instead installing a telescope on the moon.
In 1959, Hynek accepted Northwestern’s offer to become chairman of its small astronomy department. Hynek brought his pioneering work on image orthicon astronomy, which combined television technology with telescopes, with him to Northwestern. The image orthicon greatly enhanced the telescopes’ light gathering powers and the National Science Foundation proposed that this could be the most significant astronomical advance since photography. In 1961 he installed the first working image orthicon telescope at Organ Pass Observatory outside the town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. This observatory, also called the Organ Mountain Observatory and the FAST Observatory, was a former STP station that had recently been purchased by Northwestern. The following year, he installed a second image orthicon telescope at the Dearborn Observatory in Evanston.
Corralitos Observatory was later built on the same property as the Organ Pass Observatory, and both New Mexico observatories were used by Northwestern throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1966 the department received a big boost with the opening of the Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center on the Evanston campus. During Hynek’s first years as chairman, the department, which had previously offered only one course, expanded to more than a dozen, hiring twenty new faculty members and attracting increasing numbers of graduate students. Hynek himself was a popular teacher, noted for his humor and his eccentric appearance.
While at Northwestern Hynek continued to consult on the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. In March, 1966, he investigated a well-publicized UFO sighting in Michigan. His conclusion that the UFO was nothing more than swamp gas angered many in Michigan, including Rep. Gerald Ford, who hauled Hynek before a congressional committee. The fiasco must have had some impact on Hynek because by October he was publicly calling for serious study of the “persistent and disturbing phenomenon” of UFOs and criticizing his fellow scientists for dismissing all UFO spotters as “hysterics or crackpots or cranks.” Newspapers around the country picked up on Hynek’s apparent about-face. He intensified his message when the Air Force closed Project Blue Book after a 1969 report by Dr. Edward Condon of the University of Colorado concluded that UFOs did not merit further inquiry. After 1969, Hynek was virtually alone in the scientific community in supporting the continued study of UFOs.
In October 1973, a furor similar to the 1966 Michigan incident erupted in Pascagoula, Mississippi, when two men reported being abducted by aliens. Hynek administered a polygraph test and trumpeted its positive results to the press, which disseminated a sketch of the aliens throughout the country. As in 1966, a rash of new UFO sightings followed, but this time Hynek did nothing to dampen the UFO fervor. Instead, Hynek took advantage of the Mississippi event to launch his Center for UFO Studies in Evanston. Intended as a clearing-house for UFO study and sightings, the Center operated a well-publicized hotline for law enforcement officers seeking help in dealing with sightings.
Largely in response to the Condon report, Hynek wrote The UFO Experience, which was published in 1972 by Henry Regnery Company. In the book, Hynek famously laid out the three classes of “close encounters.” A close encounter of the first kind is when a UFO is simply observed and leaves no evidence. The second kind leaves physical traces such as burns and broken branches. A close encounter of the third kind is when contact is actually made. In 1977 Director Stephen Spielberg took “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as the title of his twenty-million-dollar film about UFOs. Hynek served as technical advisor to the film and made a cameo appearance in it.
As Hynek’s fame as a UFO expert grew, administrators at Northwestern became increasingly embarrassed by the resulting publicity. They were adamant that Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies be kept separate from the University. Hynek retired from Northwestern in June 1978 at the age of 68, devoting most of his time thereafter to the Center. He was forced to move the cash-strapped Center to his home in 1981, however, and to disconnect the toll-free hotline in 1982. In 1981, he persuaded Northwestern to donate the now-closed Corralitos Observatory in New Mexico to a non-profit group he headed, the Corralitos Astronomical Research Association (CARA). In search of funds, Hynek moved the Center for UFO Studies to Arizona in 1984. He died on April 27, 1986 from a malignant brain tumor at Memorial Hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was survived by his second wife, Miriam (Mimi) Curtis Hynek, whom he had married in 1942, and their five children. Mimi Hynek died in 1996.