From a skeptic to a believer: Meet Dr. J Allen Hynek, the broody character played by Aiden Gillen on 'Project Blue Book'
He came as a skeptic and left as a beliver, but not for once did he try to put the truth aside for the sheer fear of mass hysteria.
Just as some stories are stranger than fiction, some people are more fictitious than characters, and that could be said about the man, who Aidan Gillen plays in History Channel's upcoming sci-fi series, 'Project Blue Book'. Dr. J Allen Hynek, the man who spearheaded the project, holds the central place in the story which will gradually unfold the US Air Force's most controversial investigation. While America was held in the grip of fear over an alien invasion during the '50s, Hynek was the spotlight figure in the investigation, who began his journey as a skeptic but ended up as a believer.
So who is this man whom the world considered as "Mr. UFO"?
Before he would be known to be the man who challenged the government on its perception of the UFOs, Hynek was the 37-year-old director at Ohio State University’s McMillin Observatory, who was brought in by the US Air Force for scholarly advice on the strange case of the "flying saucer" which was spotted by businessman and civilian pilot, Kenneth Arnold, across the sky through Washington's Mount Rainier. However, at the time, Hynek was as much a skeptic as anyone else who had refused to believe Arnold's story, solely based on words. The doctor recalled, "I had scarcely heard of UFOs in 1948 and, like every other scientist I knew, assumed that they were nonsense."
However, as the work on Project Sign began, Hynek's reports began to show strange results. Of the 237 reviewed cases, it was noted that 67 percent of the incidents showed sufficient evidence to be either categorized as astronomical phenomena or earthly wastes. However, about 33 percent failed to give any kind of concrete evidence to help sustain any explanation, and this resulted in the use of the term “unidentified flying object,” so the mysterious remaining percent could be simply classified as “unidentified.” Although this seemed like a step towards knowing the unknown, Project Sign soon surrendered to its descendant, Project Grudge in 1949, and that almost became the end of all.
Hynek was no more involved with Project Grudge's pessimistic approach towards the UFO findings, but once it ended, he became an active member of Project Blue Book, which can be interpreted as the US Air Force's final attempt to discover UFOs. Although Hynek moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1960, to chair its astronomy department, he continued his research with Project Blue Book on the sides. However, once he stepped out on the field to interview the people who had reported seeing UFOs, he was awed by the normalcy of their tone. He recalls in his 1977 book, 'The Hynek UFO Report', "Their standing in the community, their lack of motive for perpetration of a hoax, their own puzzlement at the turn of events they believe they witnessed, and often their great reluctance to speak of the experience—all lend a subjective reality to their UFO experience.”
Hynek's approach to ridicule people's exaggerated enthusiasm about the UFOs not only resulted in the public's shutting out from volunteering in the investigation but this also means the loss of data. Hynek's rise to become the top UFO expert in the world ran parallel to the US' race to launch its own satellite following the USSR's launch of the first artificial space satellite, Sputnik in 1957. the country soon became the face of all things related to the UFOs and was soon considered to be a "liability" by Air Force Major Hector Quintanilla, who headed the project from 1963 to 1969. The only reason why Hynek stuck around- in spite of all the media frenzy- was that “Blue Book had the store of data (as poor as they were), and my association with it gave me access to those data.”
What happened after that?
Project Blue Book came to a close in 1969, but Hynek's adventure with the otherworldly beings continued. He went on to publish his first book, 'The UFO Experience', in 1972, whose part about "close encounters" became the subject of Steven Speilberg's 1977 movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' where the doctor also made a cameo as an awestruck scientist who sees the spaceship for the first time when the aliens strike. He continued his research on UFOs under the auspices of the Center for UFO Studies, which he had founded in 1973. He died in 1986 at age 75, the result of a brain tumor, but even though his riddle of the aliens remained a mystery, Hynek was probably the closest to encountering our distant neighbors.
'Project Blue Book' airs on Tuesday, January 8 at 10/9c on HISTORY.