NUFOs: New sci-fi TV series documents late Northwestern professor J. Allen Hynek’s research on UFOs
January 24, 2019
From “Stranger Things” to the “Cloverfield” film franchise, there’s no shortage of blockbuster hits and Netflix series that bring aliens down from space and into our backyards. But one of the latest sci-fi installments tackling the topic of extraterrestrials and government secrets strips away the green face-paint and tacky costumes — instead, it becomes something rooted much deeper in reality, and American history itself.
J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer and ufologist who once graced the halls of Northwestern, is the central figure in the new History Channel production “Project Blue Book.” The show dramatizes the work Hynek did with the Air Force to conduct top-secret investigations into UFO sightings.
But Hynek, who died in 1986, had made a name for himself long before he was recruited by the Air Force.
Paul Hynek described his father as the “little Czech boy” who did not speak English until kindergarten but had found his passion for astronomy by the age of seven. He then went on to earn his PhD in astronomy at the University of Chicago and teach at esteemed universities around the country. Hynek became the NU astronomy department chair and director of the Dearborn Observatory in 1960.
“He was a big fan of popularizing science,” Paul Hynek said. “Part of his career was in the 50s, during the Space Race, and he was concerned that not enough people were studying math and science.”
Paul Hynek said his father is now most commonly associated with his work alongside the Air Force. In the midst of post-World War II hysteria, J. Allen Hynek was recruited to work at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to scientifically debunk flying saucer sightings — a mission coined Project Blue Book.
J. Allen Hynek, once a skeptic, was eager to quickly explain away the cases. But even with his strong astronomy background and government resources, he deemed some sightings beyond the realm of scientific explanation.
Hynek and his team studied more than 12,000 cases in this project, but failed to solve about 700 of them — leaving Hynek with doubts about his beliefs.
“Over time, my father came to realize there was something to the phenomenon,” Paul Hynek said. “Much to his frustration and surprise, he couldn’t explain them all.”
While Paul Hynek did admit that these unsolved cases are not necessarily proof of extraterrestrial visitation, he said his father always believed there are two types of people: those who like questions they can’t answer and those who like answers they don’t question. And despite scientific pressure, J. Allen Hynek didn’t dismiss the popular answer behind these bizarre sightings: extraterrestrials.
Fast forward a few decades later, and the question of humanity’s solitude in the universe — or lack thereof — still appeals to modern audiences and particularly show producer David O’Leary. After graduating from college, O’Leary moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing, where he began to delve deeper into the topic of extraterrestrials and the government’s secretive stance on the subject.
One evening, O’Leary was struck by the idea that would marry his passion for writing with his passion for the unexplained.
“Over a glass of wine with my wife, it hit me — what if I wrote a TV series that went back and looked at all of the seminal cases of Project Blue Book? Essentially, a real life ‘X-Files’ set in the time of ‘Mad Men,’” O’Leary said. “It got me really excited and I still have the napkin where I scribbled this idea down.”
Though the show is a “historical drama in every sense” and embellishes some elements of the story, O’Leary said it still stays true to much of its namesake historical context. However, when covering a 17-year investigation in 42 minutes a week, he said some liberties must be made to tell a compelling story.
Meredith Mackey, a SESP senior and former production assistant for the History Channel, echoed this sentiment.
“Most of the sci-fi, supernatural shows that are popular right now, like ‘Stranger Things’ or big superhero stories, are entirely fantastical and magical-realism and fictional,” Mackey said. “So, it’s cool, obviously ‘(Project) Blue Book’ is dramatized, but it’s based on a real story.”
While the events are exaggerated for entertainment value, Paul Hynek serves as a consultant for the series to ensure the production authentically paints his parents, portrayed by Aidan Gillen from “Game of Thrones” and Laura Mennell from “The Man in the High Castle.”
Hynek said he has reviewed scripts, visited the set and answered questions about his parents. These inquiries would include broad topics, like his father’s outlooks or how he would react to something, as well as easily overlooked details — like when Gillen asked how J. Allen Hynek would have pronounced Halley’s Comet.
Hynek said his goal was to keep the series true to his father’s character.
“One of the things I’ve noticed in the portrayals of scientists is people tend to think of them as robots or Vulcans who just go about computing logic all day,” Hynek said. “One of the things we wanted to do was make sure they understood my father was a vibrant, fun individual who loved puns and was not thinking logically 24 hours a day.”
Even while sorting through his father’s nuances and traits for the production, Hynek said watching and working on a show dedicated to his father and his work is a surreal experience. He described watching dramatic representations of his parents as an adventure — simultaneously fun and unnerving.
Most importantly, though, Hynek believes his father would have enjoyed the series.
“My father would like the show. I think he would think it’s a lot of fun,” Paul Hynek said. “He’d probably put on his slippers and cook up some popcorn and have a grand old time.”