Time Capsule: A look at J. Allen Hynek, the NU professor whose UFO research inspired “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”


Illustration by Gemma DeCetra

Josef Allen Hynek. An astronomy professor at NU during the Space Age, Hynek researched Unidentified Flying Objects for the U.S. Air Force.

Jorja Siemons, Senior Staffer

In this series, The Daily is diving into key historical events and researching prominent figures from Evanston and Northwestern’s pasts.

When Kevin Leonard (WCAS ’77) was an undergraduate at NU, Highlights of Astronomy was a popular class — primarily because of the course’s professor, Josef Allen Hynek.

“When I got here, he was a subject of conversation among students, usually along the lines of ‘he’s entertaining,’” Leonard said. “He was extremely informative, so I enjoyed him.”

While Leonard said Hynek’s research was not discussed much in class, students knew he was a famous astronomer. After all, Hynek was the nation’s leading expert on unidentified flying objects — or UFOs — at the time.

From 1960 to 1978, Hynek chaired NU’s Astronomy Department and directed the University’s Dearborn Observatory. While he had numerous scientific achievements — including incorporating television technology into telescopes — Hynek’s UFO research captivated the nation during the Space Age.

His “Close Encounter” classification system, which categorized UFO sightings based on range and impact, inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1977 cult classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which he consulted on set. 

Leonard, who now works as a university archivist, said the Hynek Papers — a collection of biographical material, research reports and news clippings — has been popular among researchers and the NU community at the University Archives.

“It has been a heavily used collection, which is particularly rewarding for me and my colleagues because the goal of our work is to bring people into the library,” Leonard said. 

The Hynek Papers include records of Hynek’s proposed astronomical innovations, including his ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful idea to put telescopes in high-altitude balloons.

The Papers also include information about Hynek’s work as a U.S. Air Force investigator. First hired by the government while a professor at The Ohio State University in 1948, Hynek later became chief scientific advisor for Project Blue Book, an Air Force study of UFOs from 1947 to 1969. In the role, he evaluated whether certain UFO cases could be explained by astronomical phenomena.  

Mark Rodeghier, a member of the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago, recalled sifting through volumes of Project Blue Book’s findings on microfilm in the basement of Dearborn during the mid-1970s.

“They put two old microfilm readers down there, and I and two other folks — one who was with the center and a student from Northwestern — went through and looked at every page,” Rodeghier said. 

While it appeared the U.S. government stopped investigating UFOs after it closed Project Blue Book in 1969, a 2017 The New York Times report found a classified UFO investigation program still exists.

While Hynek’s more notable work pertained to UFOs, he also studied stars and star matter. Hynek used the Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center, a twin-dome observatory built on the northeast corner of the Lakefill in 1966, to research and teach. But, LARC was demolished in 1995 due to difficulties navigating light pollution in Chicago and Evanston, atmospheric turbulence and structural problems related to asbestos insulation and lead-based paint.

“The university decided it was in their best interest to tear it down,” said physics and astronomy Prof. Melville Ulmer, who has worked at NU since 1976.

Hynek’s work at LARC did not involve UFO research, according to Rodeghier. 

Though Hynek’s speculation about extraterrestrial life garnered national attention, NU administration was not keen on promoting it.

According to the NU Archival and Manuscript Collections’ biography of Hynek, administrators became increasingly embarrassed by publicity of Hynek’s work.

“They did not offer him extra office space for the Center … when we started, he never got any grants or anything from them,” Rodeghier said. 

Hynek appointed Rodeghier to take over his position as scientific director at CUFOS before he died in 1986, more than 10 years after the pair met while Rodeghier was a CUFOS volunteer and undergraduate astrophysics student.

Rodeghier said Hynek was open to the idea of UFOs being extraterrestrial, but was an “old-school conservative scientist” who wasn’t sure aliens could easily get to earth. 

For example, when the Air Force sent Hynek to Michigan in March 1966 to investigate a well-publicized UFO sighting, he concluded the observation was just “college student pranks or swamp gas.” Former president and then-Michigan U.S. house representative Gerald R. Ford called Hynek’s explanation “flippant.”

Today, Rodeghier said CUFOS remains firmly on the fence about extraterrestrial involvement with UFOs. 

Still, he said some sightings are best explained as the witness seeing “an intelligently controlled object” that’s “not terrestrial.”

“You don’t have to travel faster than the speed of light to get here if you send automated probes,” he said. “If an (extraterrestrial) civilization developed, they’ve had (a) tremendous amount of time to become advanced in technologies we can’t dream of.” 

More than 35 years after Hynek’s death, UFO sightings still occur — Pentagon officials reported hundreds of new reports last year. Rodeghier said if Hynek were still alive, he’d have been happy to see modern-day positive support for the subject. 

Still, though he was renowned for his work, Hynek never took himself too seriously. 

Leonard recalled a Highlights of Astronomy class in which a person who was completely naked, painted green and wearing an alien mask interrupted the lecture and flopped down the stairs in diver flippers. 

The person approached Hynek the way an unfamiliar alien might before taking a picture of the late NU professor on a Kodak Instamatic camera and running out of the room. 

“Hynek just burst into laughter,” Leonard said. “Some guy’s jerking him around and making fun of Hynek’s association with UFOS — and of course the little green men — and Hynek just took it … He was willing to tolerate a joke that was at his expense.” 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @JorjaSiemons

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