The Secret Life of J. Allen Hynek
According to legend, the astronomer J. Allen Hynek was a skeptic before becoming an outspoken UFOlogist, but is the legend true? This article takes a look at Hynek’s unusual life and career.
It was a “road to Damascus” experience for the Mad Men era. In 1966, the respected astronomer J. Allen Hynek had gone—seemingly overnight—from a determined debunker to an ardent apostle of the UFO gospel. A longtime consultant to Project Blue Book noted for his skeptical stance toward UFOs, Hynek suddenly began telling anyone who would listen that the UFO phenomenon merited serious scientific scrutiny. The great director Stanley Kubrick was among the many who listened. In a 1968 Playboy interview promoting his science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick spoke approvingly of what he termed Hynek’s “belated but exemplary conversion” (Phillips 2001, 58).
In fact, the professor’s apparent transformation from skeptic to UFO proponent was not quite the conversion event that it appeared on the surface. Since his teens Hynek had been an enthusiastic though closeted student of the occult. The French-born Jacques Vallee, a computer scientist and UFO author, was one of the few persons who knew Hynek’s secret. Hynek once told Vallee that he had become an astronomer in order to discover “the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain” (Vallee 1996, 232). Nonetheless, the scientist’s public U-turn gave a big boost to the UFO movement, lending it a measure of credibility, and made Hynek into a celebrity as the nation’s “foremost expert on flying saucers” (O’Toole 1966). For two decades people could point to Hynek and say, “He’s a trained scientist, an astronomer no less: if even he believes in this UFO stuff then there must be something to it.”
Who was Josef Allen Hynek? He was born on Chicago’s West Side on May 1, 1910, only a little over a week after Halley’s Comet had swung around the sun. Hynek’s Czech-born father made cigars for a living while his mother, Bertha, taught at a local grammar school. Josef credited his mother for his early interest in astronomy.
“When I was seven, I had scarlet fever and was quarantined with my mother in our apartment at 15th and Ayers,” Hynek explained. “There was nothing to do except read, and since I was so young, my mother read to me. Pretty soon we ran out of children’s books and she started reading textbooks. Among them was a high school astronomy book. I guess it interested me the most” (Berland 1962).
Maybe astronomy textbooks didn’t give him the answers he wanted, and so, as a bookish teenager, Hynek began to study what he called “esoteric subjects.” After reading widely in the occult, he developed a particular fondness for the writings of the Rosicrucian secret societies, with their tantalizing promises of hidden ancient knowledge, and those of the so-called hermetic philosophers, especially Rudolf Steiner.1 The high schooler spent over $100—roughly $1,300 in today’s dollars—to purchase the Canadian mystic Manly Hall’s massive, richly illustrated tome An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of All Ages, better known simply as The Secret Teachings of All Ages. “All my student friends thought I was crazy: why didn’t I buy a motorcycle instead, as they all did,” Hynek later told Jacques Vallee (Vallee 2010, 64–65).
Hoping to discover “the very limitations of science,” Hynek decided on a career as an astronomer. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1931, Hynek went on to pursue a doctorate in astronomy. He worked on his doctoral thesis—“A Quantitative Study of Certain Phases of F-Type Spectra”—at the Yerkes Observatory, a Romanesque temple of astronomy on the serene shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.
“The whole thing had a sort of mystical quality,” Hynek would later revealingly refer to his monastic existence at Yerkes. “One shouldn’t say that in connection with science, I guess, but I was so utterly absorbed in the life of the observatory that I had hardly heard of Hitler” (Ridpath 1973, 423).
Shortly after receiving his PhD in 1935, Hynek obtained a position as an instructor at Ohio State University and four years later became a professor there. He was still teaching at Ohio State in 1948 when a trio of Air Force officials approached him: They were looking for a scientist to help them with a puzzling problem that had recently cropped up (Ridpath 1973, 422–24).
On June 24, 1947, a salesman by the name of Kenneth Arnold reported seeing a formation of shiny objects pass in front of Mount Rainier while he was flying his private plane. In the weeks following Arnold’s alleged sighting, hundreds of persons claimed to observe similar “flying saucers.” Fearful that that these so-called “saucers” might be Soviet aircraft, U.S. Air Force officials formed Project Sign early in 1948 to investigate the phenomenon. Hynek was recruited to be the project’s astronomical consultant.
In his role as Project Sign’s scientific advisor, Hynek made periodic trips from Columbus to Wright Patterson Air Force Base (where Project Sign and its successors, Projects Grudge and Blue Book, were based) to examine the UFO case files. He proved to be a shrewd and relentless debunker, a Sherlock Holmes of sky phenomena. “I’d go through them and say, ‘Well, this is obviously a meteor,’ or ‘This is not a meteor, but I’ll bet you it’s a balloon,’” he recalled in 1985. “I was a thorough skeptic, and I’m afraid I helped to engender the idea that it must be nonsense, therefore it is nonsense” (Weintraub 1985, 74).
One of Hynek’s earliest efforts at debunking—and one of his most famous—concerned the 1948 case of Captain Thomas Mantell, an Air Force pilot who, while investigating a UFO, died when his P-51 Mustang crashed. In his report of the incident Hynek suggested that the UFO may have been Venus, even though, as he later admitted, the planet would have been too faint to be seen in the bright daylight sky (Ruppelt 1956, 41–47). The astronomer had another—probably correct—theory on that case: the UFO Mantell observed and pursued too high was a Skyhook balloon (Vallee 1987, 72).
Hynek at first figured flying saucer sightings were merely “a post-war craze that would disappear as quickly as the hula-hoop” (Hall and Connors 2000, 240). But the UFO reports kept on coming as Project Sign turned into Project Grudge in 1949 and then into Project Blue Book in 1952. During the latter year a wave of UFO sightings prompted Hynek to begin reconsidering his views on the subject. He openly speculated that UFOs might be a new kind of natural phenomenon he dubbed “nocturnal meandering lights” (Swords and Powell 2012, 191). The astronomer’s change of mind was so apparent that Captain Edward Ruppelt, the first director of Project Blue Book, judged Hynek to be “very much pro-UFO” (Hall and Connors 2000, 205, 212).
Hynek later attributed this shift in his thinking to two things:
One was the completely negative and unyielding attitude of the Air Force. . . . 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. 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. (Stacy 1985)
As early as 1960, Hynek had begun to argue behind the scenes that UFOs deserved serious scientific scrutiny. “I need only remind you,” he wrote to an Air Force official that year, “that less than two centuries ago the entire province of meteorites was kept out of legitimate astronomy because stories of ‘stones that fell from the sky’ were regarded as old wives tales. Had these accounts been given careful attention by the scientists of that day, the productive branch of astronomy which we now know as meteoritics would have been born well over a century earlier than it was” (Hynek 1960). Hynek would often cite this incident from the history of astronomy to justify himself when he later became an outspoken UFO proponent.
Hynek’s true views on UFOs were still unknown to the public when the astronomer, now teaching at Northwestern University, first met Jacques Vallee in the fall of 1963. Taking a job as a computer programmer at Northwestern, Vallee became a close friend of Hynek and soon they formed a UFO discussion group: The astronomer would eventually nickname this group “the Invisible College” (Vallee 1996, 270)—a term first used by the Rosicrucians in the early 1600s. Vallee began prodding Hynek to break with the Air Force and publicly admit that the UFO phenomenon was real and worthy of serious scientific investigation. Project Blue Book’s longtime scientific consultant—still known as a staunch UFO debunker—stubbornly resisted this advice (Vallee 1996, 80–94).
Hynek had a lot to lose. He enjoyed a respectable reputation in the astronomical world: while he had a sizeable number of journal articles on stellar astronomy to his credit, he was better known for his work behind a desk than for his labors in front of a telescope. He had been a director of the McMillin Observatory in Ohio, a co-director of the Operation Moonwatch satellite tracking program, secretary of the American Astronomical Society, and the guiding force behind the Project Sky Gazer balloon astronomy program (Ridpath 1973, 422–24). He understandably wasn’t eager to risk his name—and his career—in the interest of UFOs. The astronomer was waiting, in Vallee’s words, for “the single big case that no one would be able to deny because the evidence would be overwhelming” (Vallee 1996, 96).
And then, on April 24, 1964, the single big case arrived, or so it seemed. In Socorro, New Mexico, police officer Lonnie Zamora was chasing a speeder in his squad car when he suddenly heard a roar and noticed a flame in the sky. Investigating, Zamora spotted an egg-shaped, “aluminum white” object with legs that extended to the ground, and he noticed two white-cloaked figures nearby. As the officer cautiously approached it, the object began to bellow, and Zamora high-tailed it back toward his car. The UFO then ascended into the sky and soon disappeared from view (Hynek 1972, 144–45).
Badgered by the news media, Major Hector Quintanilla, Project Blue Book’s director, reluctantly dispatched Hynek to Socorro to investigate the alleged sighting. At the landing site Hynek examined charred plants and four impressions that had been left in the ground and persuaded Zamora to reenact the events (Huyghe 2001, 317–18). The astronomer left New Mexico “more puzzled now than I arrived,” he confessed to a reporter, but he was convinced that Zamora had indeed seen something (Chicago Tribune 1964).2
Hynek and Vallee frequently discussed the Socorro case, but the astronomer was still unwilling to publicly come out as pro-UFO (Vallee 1996, 118). Things changed in the spring of 1966. On March 20 of that year, dozens of persons reported viewing glowing objects hovering over a swamp near Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the following night, eighty-seven students at Hillsdale College, also in Michigan, claimed to have seen strange red, white, and blue lights. The Michigan sightings received massive media coverage, and Major Quintanilla once again sent Hynek out into the field. The professor rushed out to Michigan and conducted his investigation in an atmosphere of “near-hysteria,” dogged almost every step of the way by reporters and cameramen. After interviewing thirty-two witnesses and conferring with several University of Michigan professors, Hynek concluded that at least two of the Michigan UFOs may have been manifestations of swamp gas (Hynek 1966a, 20).
On March 26, Hynek announced his findings at a packed press conference in Detroit—supposedly “the largest in the history of the Detroit Press Club” (House of Representatives 1966, 6006). After suggesting swamp gas as a likely explanation for some of the Michigan UFOs, Hynek stressed that he could not prove “in a court of law that this is the full explanation of these sightings” (Los Angeles Times 1966). The media mostly ignored this qualifier and Hynek immediately became a national laughingstock for his swamp gas theory, lampooned in cartoons and lambasted in editorials as a puppet of the Air Force (Huyghe 2001, 9–10).
Hynek’s swamp gas theory also attracted the notice—and the ire—of Gerald Ford, the powerful Republican congressman from Michigan and future president. In response, Ford promptly requested the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to investigate the UFO phenomenon, believing that “the American public deserves a better explanation than that thus far given by the Air Force”—meaning the explanation given by Hynek (House of Representatives 1966, 6047). The wish of the House minority leader was equivalent to a command and so the UFO hearing took place only one week after Ford had made his request.
On April 5, 1966, Hynek made his first public break with the Air Force, boldly using the occasion of his testimony before the Armed Services Committee to do so. Stung by the “swamp gas” criticism, the astronomer apparently wanted to show that he wasn’t the Air Force’s or anyone else’s puppet. In a statement not cleared by Major Quintanilla, the Project Blue Book director, Hynek told the sitting congressmen that there were aspects of the UFO phenomenon “worthy of scientific attention,” and he called for the creation of a panel of physical and social scientists to seriously analyze what he termed the “UFO problem” (House of Representatives 1966, 6007–6008).
“The swamp gas episode boomeranged like hell on me and the Air Force,” Hynek later explained his about-face. “I began to feel guilty about my skeptical attitude. And once you open the gates to the possibility that all these people can’t possibly be mistaken, then you see a lot of other cases in a totally different light” (Huyghe 2001, 33). As we have seen, Hynek’s “skeptical attitude” was in fact a façade for public consumption. A longtime student of the occult, he happened to be very open to outré notions: he, for example, believed that there were planes of existence beyond the physical, and he even endorsed alleged instances of “psychic surgery” and “psychic photography” (Vallee 1996, 240, 306). But it took the media furor over the “swamp gas episode” for an angry and embarrassed Hynek to publicly air his long-held views on UFOs.
It was a risky move for Hynek but not as risky as it would have been a few short years before. Since then his astronomical career had stalled in a big way.3 In 1957, Hynek launched in collaboration with the Air Force a program for balloon-based astronomy—later named Project Star Gazer. The plan was to send telescope-equipped balloons high above the image-distorting lower layers of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, a series of failed test launches prompted the Air Force to scrap Project Star Gazer in 1963. The decision was devastating for Hynek, who seems to have bet his professional career on the success of the project. In a scathing final report to the Air Force the astronomer didn’t hold back. “In any event,” he wrote, “the setting aside of a project which had engaged so many for such a length of time, at a time when success seemed assured, can only be listed in the scientific annals as a criminal act, and one carried out in a callous, cavalier manner without regard for the desires, objectives and ideals of the people involved” (Hynek 1966b). Was Hynek’s emergence into the open as a pro-UFO crusader partly an attempt, whether subconscious or not, to get back at the Air Force for torpedoing Project Star Gazer?
As Hynek had recommended during his congressional testimony, the Air Force soon funded a scientific study of UFOs and the renowned physicist Edward U. Condon, of the University of Colorado, was chosen to direct it. After three contentious years, the Condon Committee concluded in 1969 that “further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby” (Hynek 1972, 192–93). Hynek predictably dismissed the committee’s report, calling it “a waste of time” (Kotulak 1969), but the Air Force went ahead anyway and closed Project Blue Book later that year. The professor was now on his own as a UFO investigator.
Back in 1966, Hynek had chosen the biggest megaphone he could find to announce his new career as a UFO advocate: He sent a bombshell letter to the prestigious and widely read journal Science in which he argued that UFOs merited scientific investigation. The Science editors grudgingly published the letter but only after the astronomer had leaked its contents to the Chicago Sun-Times (Vallee 1996, 222). Hynek subsequently wrote articles on UFOs for such national publications as The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, and even Playboy, and he became a ubiquitous presence on television and radio shows. “Media men hire Allen as they would hire a guitar player,” Jacques Vallee wrote in his journal. “He rushes wherever he sees a spotlight, and if the spotlight moves, he moves with it” (Vallee 1996, 259).
Hynek’s fame came at a great cost: he lost the respect of his peers in the scientific community. “His colleagues’ attitude towards him is changing to the point of contempt, and this pains him,” Vallee noted in 1968. “He is no longer taken seriously among astronomers” (Vallee 1996, 339).
Determined to prove his colleagues wrong, Hynek began working on a book that he said would take a scientific approach to the study of UFOs. Published in 1972, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry argues for the reality of the UFO phenomenon in a dry, matter-of-fact manner. The book is most noteworthy for its classification of certain UFO reports into Close Encounters of the First Kind (sightings), the Second Kind (sightings with physical effects), and the Third Kind (sightings of UFO occupants) (Hynek 1972, 86).
Unfortunately for Hynek, The UFO Experience did further damage to his academic standing. According to an astronomer friend of Vallee, Hynek’s book “created antagonism among the (Northwestern) Faculty and made him a controversial figure. In spite of a fair review in Science Magazine, many professors have felt that the reputation of the school was tainted” (Vallee 2010, 156). Indeed, speaking for his faculty colleagues in 1982, the dean of Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences categorically declared to a University official: “We are not, have not been, and will not be proud of Hynek’s UFO affairs. There are many who think that what he’s up to has nothing to do with research” (Weingartner 1982).
Hynek may have genuinely wanted to restore his scientific standing, but his behavior during the 1970s certainly didn’t help matters. The bespectacled, goateed astronomer was a familiar sight to television viewers of the era, pontificating on the “UFO problem” on programs ranging from The Dick Cavett Show to In Search Of. Late in 1973, he endorsed the alien abduction claims of two Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard workers, saying the men had “a very real experience” (Los Angeles Times 1973). He joined a UFO panel formed by the National Enquirer: $50,000 was to be awarded to “the first person to prove to the panel that UFOs are from outer space and are not natural phenomena” (Dick 1972). Near the end of the decade Hynek even made an eight-second cameo appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Huyghe 2001, 32). He was also a popular figure on the lucrative college lecture circuit. He later boasted to a friend “that each one of my lectures brings me more than my monthly pay from Northwestern” (Hynek 1978).
Hynek’s extracurricular activities did not endear him to the Northwestern University administration. In the fall of 1973, following a wave of alleged sightings, the astronomer formed the Center for UFO Studies to serve as a clearinghouse for UFO reports. He hoped that the Center could be located on the Northwestern campus, but university officials adamantly rejected this idea. School administrators insisted that there be no connection whatsoever between Northwestern and the UFO center; Hynek was not even allowed to use his Northwestern mailing address for any Center-related correspondence. Eventually protesting, the professor fired off a series of angry letters. “Frankly, I am quite embarrassed to have to say that the University has been so conservative as to not see the potential here, both for science and for publicity,” he raged in one letter. “And, of course, I personally resent the implication that the subject is sheer nonsense and that anyone connected with it is a crackpot (speaking bluntly!)” (Hynek 1974).
After he retired from Northwestern in 1978, Hynek devoted much of his time to the Center for UFO Studies. Despite having a good track record as a fundraiser—he had obtained money from private donors for Northwestern’s Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center—Hynek struggled to put his UFO center on a secure financial footing: Wealthy would-be benefactors frequently tantalized him with offers of monetary support only to let him down in the end. Finally in 1984, Hynek packed up his research files and relocated his UFO center to Scottsdale, Arizona, having been lured there by a rich Englishman with promises of money and the use of his “quite luxurious” home (Witt 1984). Once again the astronomer was doomed to disappointment: this particular patron “was only interested in keeping a few scientists in his entourage to promote his personal theories about the (UFO) phenomenon,” Jacques Vallee maintained (Vallee 1996, 423).
Hynek was often evasive when asked to give his own theories on the nature of UFOs. Despite his cameo in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he had by then rejected the notion that UFOs were “nuts and bolts” spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrials (Gardner 1997, 247). His occult studies had pointed him in a very different direction. As early as 1967, he speculated that UFOs might be “observational devices that are materialized into our world by the denizens of another” (Vallee 1996, 306). He later offered a variation on this theory: UFOs as “psychic projections” created by an “extradimensional intelligence in some parallel reality” (Gardner 1997, 253). Speaking to the UFOlogist Jerome Clark, Hynek was more specific. The astronomer allegedly told Clark that he believed “elementals”—nature spirits—were behind the UFO phenomenon (Clark 1998).
It is easy to question the veracity of Clark’s startling claim, but it makes sense when one realizes that Hynek was strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian mystic. Steiner argued that the hard sciences merely offer humankind “a vast amount of popular information.” By employing sense-free thinking, the enlightened individual, on the other hand, could “pierce the veil” and discover what lay behind the material world revealed by science. In Steiner’s view, elementals—spirits of air, earth, water, and the ether—dwelled in this hidden realm inaccessible to the senses. If Hynek did indeed believe that UFOs were nature spirits, he may have specifically identified them with this last class of elemental—the etheric “beings of the higher elements.” Steiner claimed that “what exists in the sky is not merely the physical sun, but that with the sun’s warmth and light etheric beings stream down to earth” (Steiner 1922). Did Hynek suspect that UFOs were Steiner’s “etheric beings” streaming down to Earth?
For those very few who knew of Hynek’s fascination with the occult, his 1975 piece on Johannes Kepler—the great seventeenth-century astronomer—in the journal Vistas in Astronomy had an extra meaning. In this eye-opening, one-page article Hynek argued that science historians are wrong to dismiss Kepler’s practice of astrology as merely something he did to keep alive. “Both his [Kepler’s] astrology and astronomy grew out of and partook in large measure of his deep mystical outlook,” Hynek (1975) wrote. He went on to assert that modern astronomy, with its exotic concepts like quasars, pulsars, and black holes, offered “a broad playing field for the metaphysicist.” According to Hynek, there was a “tenuous bond” linking present-day astronomy’s metaphysical thinking and Kepler’s brand of metaphysics, with both systems of thought being “the repository of fundamental questions not entertained on the present playing field of physical science” (Hynek 1975, 455). Hynek apparently saw Kepler as a kindred spirit, and, in this article, he was defending not only Kepler’s beliefs but his own.
“I have never stopped thinking about what must lie beyond all this,” Hynek once remarked to Vallee in Colorado as he sweepingly gestured toward the Rockies and the Great Plains (Vallee 1996, 232). For the professor, UFOs represented the “beyond,” that point where science could not reach. Having become an astronomer in order to discover the limits of science, Hynek wanted, maybe even needed, to believe in UFOs. It was a case of wishful thinking.
Hynek died of a brain tumor at Memorial Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 27, 1986 (Folkart 1986). Halley’s Comet was then making its return appearance after a seventy-six-year journey through the solar system. Like Mark Twain, Josef Allen Hynek came into the world with the great comet, and he went out with it as well.
1. Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was an Austrian-born mystic who propagated a belief known as anthroposophy or spiritual science. According to Robert McDermott, the purpose of anthroposophy was “to bring to humanity an entirely new capability—knowledge of the spiritual world by conscious sense-free thinking” (McDermott 1984, 3). In his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner called Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society “the fastest growing cult in post-war Germany” (Gardner 1957, 169).
2. In a recently unearthed 1968 letter, the then-president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology indicated to the chemist Linus Pauling that the Zamora episode was in fact a hoax perpetrated by a student (Sheaffer 2010, 25).
3. According to the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, out of the over 100 astronomical publications Hynek had to his credit, only about a dozen appeared after 1966. Nearly one-half of these dozen articles related to Image Orthicon—a ground-breaking system using television technology to boost the light grasp of telescopes that Hynek helped develop in the 1950s and 1960s (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory/National Aeronautics and Space Administration, N.d.).
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———. 1973. Recent UFO sightings: reports, answers—and a few mysteries. (October 18).
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———. 1996. Forbidden Science: Journals 1957–1969. New York: Marlowe & Company.
———. 2010. Forbidden Science: Journals 1970–1979. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Documatica Research.
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