Meet J. Allen Hynek, the Astronomer Who First Classified UFO 'Close Encounters'

Meet J. Allen Hynek, the Astronomer Who First Classified UFO 'Close Encounters'



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It’s September 1947, and the U.S. Air Force has a problem. A rash of reports about mysterious objects in the skies has the public on edge and the military baffled. The Air Force needs to figure out what’s going on—and fast. It launches an investigation it calls Project Sign.

By early 1948 the team realizes it needs some outside expertise to sift through the reports it’s receiving—specifically an astronomer who can determine which cases are easily explained by astronomical phenomena, such as planets, stars or meteors.

For J. Allen Hynek, then the 37-year-old director at Ohio State University’s McMillin Observatory, it would be a classic case of being in the right place at the right time—or, as he may have occasionally lamented, the wrong place at the wrong one.

READ MORE: Interactive Map: UFO Sightings Taken Seriously by the U.S. Government

The adventure begins

Hynek had worked for the government during the war, developing new defense technologies like the first radio-controlled fuse, so he already had a high security clearance and was a natural go-to.

“One day I had a visit from several men from the technical center at Wright-Patterson Air Force base, which was only 60 miles away in Dayton,” Hynek later wrote. “With some obvious embarrassment, the men eventually brought up the subject of ‘flying saucers’ and asked me if I would care to serve as consultant to the Air Force on the matter… The job didn't seem as though it would take too much time, so I agreed.”

Little did Hynek realize that he was about to begin a lifelong odyssey that would make him one of the most famous and, at times, controversial scientists of the 20 century. Nor could he have guessed how much his own thinking about UFOs would change over that period as he persisted in bringing rigorous scientific inquiry to the subject.

“I had scarcely heard of UFOs in 1948 and, like every other scientist I knew, assumed that they were nonsense,” he recalled.

Project Sign ran for a year, during which the team reviewed 237 cases. In Hynek’s final report, he noted that about 32 percent of incidents could be attributed to astronomical phenomena, while another 35 percent had other explanations, such as balloons, rockets, flares or birds. Of the remaining 33 percent, 13 percent didn’t offer enough evidence to yield an explanation. That left 20 percent that provided investigators with some evidence but still couldn’t be explained.

The Air Force was loath to use the term “unidentified flying object,” so the mysterious 20 percent were simply classified as “unidentified.”

In February 1949, Project Sign was succeeded by Project Grudge. While Sign offered at least a pretense of scientific objectivity, Grudge seems to have been dismissive from the start, just as its angry-sounding name suggests. Hynek, who played no role in Project Grudge, said it “took as its premise that UFOs simply could not be.” Perhaps not surprisingly, its report, issued at the end of 1949, concluded that the phenomena posed no danger to the United States, having resulted from mass hysteria, deliberate hoaxes, mental illness or conventional objects that the witnesses had misinterpreted as otherworldly. It also suggested the subject wasn’t worth further study.

Project Blue Book is born

That might’ve been the end of it. But UFO incidents continued, including some puzzling reports from the Air Force’s own radar operators. The national media began treating the phenomenon more seriously; LIFE magazine did a 1952 cover story, and even the widely respected TV journalist Edward R. Murrow devoted a program to the topic, including an interview with Kenneth Arnold, a pilot whose 1947 sighting of mysterious objects over Mount Rainier in Washington state popularized the term “flying saucer.” The Air Force had little choice but to revive Project Grudge, which soon morphed into the more benignly named Project Blue Book.

Hynek joined Project Blue Book in 1952 and would remain with it until its demise in 1969. For him, it was a side gig as he continued to teach and to pursue other, non-UFO research, at Ohio State. In 1960 he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, to chair its astronomy department.

As before, Hynek’s role was to review the reports of UFO sightings and determine whether there was a logical astronomical explanation. Typically that involved a lot of unglamorous paperwork; but now and then, for an especially puzzling case, he had a chance to get out into the field.

There he discovered something he might never have learned from simply reading the files: how normal the people who reported seeing UFOs tended to be. “The witnesses I interviewed could have been lying, could have been insane or could have been hallucinating collectively—but I do not think so,” he recalled 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.”

For the rest of his life Hynek would deplore the ridicule that people who reported a UFO sighting often had to endure—which, in turn, caused untold numbers of others to never come forward. It wasn’t just unfair to the individuals involved, but meant a loss of data that might be useful to researchers.

“Given the controversial nature of the subject, it’s understandable that both scientists and witnesses are reluctant to come forward,” says Jacques Vallee, co-author with Dr. Hynek of The Edge of Reality: A Progress Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. “Because their life is going to change. There are cases where their house is broken into. People throw stones at their kids. There are family crises—divorce and so on… You become the person who has seen something that other people have not seen. And there is a lot of suspicion attached to that.”

READ MORE: The 5 Most Credible Modern UFO Sightings

Eyes on the skies—and the Soviets

In the late 1950s, the Air Force faced a more urgent problem than hypothetical UFOs. On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. surprised the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial space satellite—and a serious blow to Americans’ sense of technological superiority.

At that point, Hynek had taken leave from Ohio State to work on a satellite-tracking system at Harvard, notes Mark O’Connell in his 2017 biography, The Close Encounters Man. Suddenly Hynek was on TV and holding frequent press conferences to assure Americans that their scientists were closely monitoring the situation. On October 21, 1957, he appeared on the cover of LIFE with his boss, the Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple, and their colleague Don Lautman. It was his first taste of the national celebrity, but wouldn’t be the last.

With Sputnik circling the earth every 98 minutes, often visible to the naked eye, many Americans began looking skyward, and UFO sightings continued unabated.

From Dr. Hynek to Mr. UFO

By the 1960s, Hynek had emerged as the nation’s—perhaps the world’s—top expert on UFOs, quoted widely in his capacity as scientific consultant to Project Blue Book. But behind the scenes, he chafed at what he perceived as the project’s mandate to debunk UFO sightings. He was also critical of its procedures, judging the Blue Book staff “grossly inadequate,” its communication with outside scientists “appalling” and its statistical methods “nothing less than a travesty.”

The feeling, apparently, was mutual. In an unpublished manuscript unearthed by biographer O'Connell, Air Force Major Hector Quintanilla, who headed the project from 1963 to 1969, writes that he considered Hynek a “liability.”

Why did he stick around? Hynek offered a number of explanations. “But most importantly,” he wrote, “Blue Book had the store of data (as poor as they were), and my association with it gave me access to those data.”

If Hynek often angered UFO debunkers, like Quintanilla, he didn’t always please the believers, either.

In 1966, for example, he went to Michigan to investigate multiple reports of strange lights in the sky. When he offered the theory that it might have been an optical illusion involving swamp gas, he found himself widely derided in the press and “swamp gas” became a punchline for newspaper cartoonists. More seriously, two Michigan Congressmen, including Gerald R. Ford (who later became president), took umbrage at the apparent insult to their state’s citizenry and called for a Congressional hearing.

Testifying at the hearing, Hynek saw an opportunity to plead the case he’d been making to the Air Force for years, but with little success. “Specifically, it is my opinion that the body of data accumulated since 1948…deserves close scrutiny by a civilian panel of physical and social scientists…for the express purpose of determining whether a major problem really exists.”

Hynek would soon get his wish, or so it seemed. Now facing greater scrutiny in Congress, the Air Force established a civilian committee of scientists to investigate UFOs, chaired by a University of Colorado physicist, Dr. Edward U. Condon. Hynek, who would not be on the committee, was hopeful at first. But he lost faith two years later when the committee issued what came to be known as the Condon Report.

He called the report “rambling” and “poorly organized” and Condon’s introductory summary “singularly slanted.” Though the report cited numerous UFO incidents its researchers couldn’t explain, it concluded that “further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified.” It was exactly what Hynek wouldn’t have wanted.

The following year, 1969, Project Blue Book shut down for good.

After Blue Book, a new chapter

The end of Blue Book proved a turning point for Hynek. As O'Connell writes, he “found himself suddenly liberated from the frustrations, compromises and bullying of the U.S. Air Force. He was a free man.”

Meanwhile, sightings continued around the world—UFOs, Hynek later quipped, “apparently did not read the Condon Report”—and he went on with his research.

In 1972, he published his first book, The UFO Experience. Among its contributions to the field, it introduced Hynek’s classifications of UFO incidents he called Close Encounters.

Close Encounters of the First Kind meant UFOs seen at a close enough range to make out some details. In a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, the UFO had a physical effect, such as scorching trees, frightening animals or causing car motors to suddenly conk out. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, witnesses reported seeing occupants in or near a UFO.

Though less remembered now, Hynek also provided three classifications for more distant encounters. Those involved UFOs seen at night (“nocturnal lights”) during the day (“daylight discs”) or on radar screens (“radar/visual”).

The most dramatic of Hynek’s classifications, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would, of course, become the title of a Steven Spielberg movie released in 1977. O'Connell reports that Hynek was paid $1,000 for the use of the title, another $1,000 for the rights to use stories from the book and $1,500 for three days of technical consulting—hardly a windfall by Hollywood standards. He also had a brief cameo in the film, playing an awestruck scientist when the alien craft comes into close view.

In 1978, Hynek retired from teaching, but he continued to collect and evaluate UFO reports under the auspices of the Center for UFO Studies, which he had founded in 1973. The organization continues to this day.

Hynek died in 1986 at age 75, the result of a brain tumor. He hadn’t solved the riddle of UFOs but, perhaps more than anyone else, he had made trying to solve that riddle a legitimate scientific pursuit.

“The main thing I got from my father in this whole thing was how important it was to keep an open mind,” says his son, Joel Hynek, who as a young ham-radio operator used to record many of his father’s witness interviews. “He kept saying, ‘You know, we don’t know still everything there is to know about the universe… There could be aspects of physics that we haven’t come upon yet.’”

WATCH: Full episodes of Project Blue Book online now.


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"?

Hynek spearheaded the operation that was the closest to proving the existence of UFOs. (Facebook)

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.

Project Blue Book was one of a series of systematic studies of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) conducted by the United States Air Force. (Facebook)

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.


Early life

Josef Allen Hynek was born May 1, 1910 in Chicago, Illinois to Joseph, a cigar manufacturer who immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia, and Bertha, an elementary school teacher. Hynek initially became interested in the stars while he was bedridden with scarlet fever at age 7. After he had read all of the children's books that were in their home, Hynek's mother gave him textbooks, with a high school astronomy textbook being the most significant. It inspired Hynek with cosmic curiosity.

Hynek excelled in school and as a teenageer he became drawn to such arcane subjects as the works of spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner and texts pertaining to Rosicrucian secret societies. After earning his bachelor's degree in science from the University of Chicago in 1931, Hynek remained at the school to obtain a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 1935, with his graduate studies taking him to Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, a place sometimes called "the birthplace of modern astrophysics." The following year, Hynek joined Ohio State University's Physics and Astronomy department, where he specialized in the study of stellar evolution, the process by which a star changes over time, and identifying spectroscopic binary stars, a star system where two stars orbit around a common center of mass.


Education

After earning his bachelor of science from the University of Chicago in 1931, Hynek remained at the school to pursue a doctorate in astronomy. His graduate studies took him to the Yerkes Observatory at Wisconsin&aposs Lake Geneva, where, he recalled, his focus on the cosmos left him largely in the dark about events like the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Instead, it was an interstellar event that impacted his career: With the appearance of the brilliant Nova Herculis in the night sky in late 1934, Hynek was tapped to take readings of the supernova at Ohio&aposs Perkins Observatory, which was affiliated with Ohio State University. After earning his Ph.D., he joined Ohio State&aposs Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1936.


MEET THE READER: Close Encounters of the Writing Kind

Forty years after Steven Spielberg’s epic premiered about mankind’s first meeting with extra-terrestrial life, Close Encounters remains notable for many reasons.

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray&aposs full bio.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released forty years ago this November.

Steven Spielberg’s luminous epic about mankind’s first meeting with extra-terrestrial life was a critical and financial smash when it first opened and was quickly recognized as a modern classic. Four decades later, the film remains notable for many reasons:

  • It’s a wonderful movie. It tells an exciting tale filled with action, thrills, terror, humor, and a genuine sense of wonder that leads to one of the most transcendent endings in movie history. Spielberg’s direction is masterful, as is the work of all of his principal collaborators, including production designer Joe Alves (who created the largest indoor set ever constructed for a motion picture), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who won an Academy Award for his work), editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams (whose five-note sonic greeting from the aliens to mankind has become an iconic piece of film music), and special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who together with his partner Richard Yuricich and their team of ace technical magicians at the Future General company, created some of the most ambitious and stunning visual effects ever presented on film. The movie also features wonderful performances by Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, and Francois Truffaut.
  • Along with Star Wars (which opened six months earlier) Close Encounters transformed science fiction and fantasy from vaguely disreputable 𠇋” genres into 𠇊” movie material in the eyes of both the general public and the film industry.
  • It’s the first true Steven Spielberg movie. Jaws is a magnificent picture, but Close Encounters is the first of director’s movies to contain many of the elements that would become closely associated with him in the years that followed: an uplifting sci-fi/fantasy narrative infused with a tremendous sense of wonder a focus on children an exploration of life in the American suburbs broken families a fascination with World War II a highly sophisticated use of visual and special effects the use of a powerful John Williams score to create a powerful emotional response cinematography that emphasizes smoke and strong backlighting and Spielberg’s trademarked “push in” close-ups onto the awed faces of his characters.
  • It was the first major sci-fi film to depict first contact as a potentially positive experience – that a meeting between mankind and beings from another world could be a joyous, peaceful, uplifting event, rather than an occasion of invasion and horror. In the years following CE3K and especially E.T. that became a commonplace idea, but in 1977 it was pretty revolutionary.

Like all great movies, Close Encounters began with a great script and so, to celebrate CE3K’s ruby anniversary, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how this classic movie was written.

Sometime in 1973, Steven Spielberg pitched an idea to producers Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips, then currently working on their Academy Award for Best Picture-winning film The Sting. Spielberg’s idea was to do a thriller about “UFOs and Watergate.”

Spielberg had been interested in the UFO phenomenon – the modern version of which kicked off in June 1947 (six months after Spielberg was born) when a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported encounter an unidentified flying object when he was flying near Mount Rainier in Washington State -- since he was a child. As a teenager he made a feature length 8mm film about UFOs menacing a small American town called Firelight and during his early years in Hollywood he wrote a short treatment called 𠇎xperiences” about UFOs menacing folks parked in a lovers’ lane. However, his pitch to the Phillips’s seems to have been more directly inspired by the 1972 publication of a book called The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry by Dr. J. Allen Hynek.

Hynek was an astronomer and professor at Northwestern University who had spent years working as a consultant to Project Blue Book – a U.S. Air Force unit that was created to investigate UFO sightings, but whose true purpose seemed to be to debunk them. Hynek was initially glad to comply, feeling that most people who reported seeing UFOs were crackpots and that most sightings could be easily explained away as mistaken satellites, weather balloons, and swamp gas. Most could be, but Hynek soon discovered that some could not be. Intrigued, Hynek wanted to investigate these curious cases further, but found the Air Force resistant to the prospect. Hynek pressed on alone and eventually came to the conclusion that UFOs were real (he didn’t necessarily think they were flying saucers from outer space, but he did think there was something curious going on that was worth looking into) and that the U.S. government was covering them up. After Project Blue Book closed down, Hynek continued his investigations through his own Center for UFO Studies and wrote his book, in which he identified three distinct types of interactions with UFOs, which he called close encounters:

  • A Close Encounter of the First Kind is the sighting of an unidentified flying object.
  • A Close Encounter of the Second Kind is some sort of physical evidence (detritus, scorched earth, flattened grass, marks in the dirt, etc.) of an alien object.
  • A Close Encounter of the Third Kind is actual contact with a UFO (and perhaps its occupants).

In the early 1970s, much questionable and illegal behavior on the part of the United States government was coming to light including illegal actions by the CIA, dishonest handling of the Viet Nam War, and most notably the Watergate scandal. Inspired by Hynek’s book, by all of his other UFO research, and by the tenor of the times, Spielberg came up with the idea to do a story about a Project Blue Book investigator whose job is debunk UFO sightings but discovers the US government is covering up the truth that UFOs are real that they are really vehicles from outer space and that extraterrestrials have been visiting Earth for some time. In the course of the story the investigator would expose the scandal and the film would end with the first meeting between mankind and aliens. Spielberg’s proposed title: Watch the Skies.

The Phillipses liked the idea and agreed to develop it with Spielberg. After setting the project up at Columbia pictures, they needed someone to write the script. The producers were currently preparing to make Taxi Driver and suggested its screenwriter Paul Schrader. The four met and tossed around ideas. Spielberg wanted to incorporate scenes based on some of the better known UFO incidents – including the “Midwestern Flap” (during which a bevy of UFOs were spotted over several Midwestern states and were chased by police and the military). Inspired by the “Night of Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia, he also wanted the final encounter to take place on a distinctive mountain. Schrader suggested that they play down the thriller aspects of the story and instead make it a story of spiritual transformation. Basing the protagonist’s arc on the story of St. Paul – whose job was to persecute Christians until he had a spiritual awakening on the road to Damascus and became a Christian himself – Schrader suggested they do a story about a skeptical UFO debunker who has a Close Encounter of the First Kind and then sets out to make contact with aliens. Spielberg and the Phillipses liked Schrader’s idea and agreed to the change in narrative emphasis. To explain how the protagonist is ultimately able to make contact with the e.t.s, they also adopted a suggestion from Brian De Palma and decided to have the aliens implant a psychic vision of the mountain in the hero’s mind (even though psychic phenomena are not a feature of most UFO lore).

Schrader wrote a draft but neither Spielberg nor the Phillipses liked it – they felt it was too dark, too heavy, too cerebral. Telling his story in a series of flashbacks, Schrader had focused primarily on the depression and inner torment brought on by the protagonist’s initial encounter with a UFO and emphasized the psychic aspects of the story over the unidentified flying objects -- in Schrader’s script, UFOs aren’t real vehicles but are instead mental projections implanted by the aliens in the collective subconscious of ancient man and first contact occurs deep in the recesses of the protagonist’s mind.

Spielberg and the Phillipses started over again with screenwriter John Hill, requesting he return to the original concept of a more traditional thriller about a UFO cover-up. Hill wrote a draft but upon reading it Spielberg decided that he no longer wanted to proceed with the thriller concept. He found it hard to care about a military protagonist and felt that neither the Schrader nor the Hill scripts captured the magic and wonder of UFOs and outer space that was the reason he wanted to make the movie in the first place. Spielberg realized that the only way he was going to get the movie he wanted was to write the script himself.

Rather than a military man, Spielberg focused his script on a suburban husband and father – a power company employee who has a close encounter of the first and second kinds while out one night on a call. Implanted with the psychic vision of a shape he doesn’t understand, he tries to discover the truth about UFOs and in the process becomes alienated from his family, his job, and his community. When he recognizes the haunting shape as a unique Wyoming mountain called Devil’s Tower, he defies reports of a toxic gas leak in the area (actually a government-sponsored hoax designed to keep people out of the area created by a shadowy team of UFO experts preparing for first contact) and makes his way to Devil’s Tower, where he witnesses the arrival of a fleet of UFOs and the first encounter of man and alien before ultimately going aboard the alien mothership himself and departing for the stars.

Not a natural writer, Spielberg struggled to pen his screenplay. It took him a long time, but he eventually laid out the story he wanted to tell and the movie he wanted to make. No longer a tortured drama or a dark thriller, it became – in the words of Michael Phillips – “what we now recognize as a Steven Spielberg film – a joyous roller coaster.”

Columbia approved Spielberg’s script – now named Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- and the film went into pre-production in the late summer of 1975. With Hynek now on board the project as a consultant, Spielberg did a rewrite to further develop the narrative. In this draft, he made the leader of the secret UFO team (formerly an American) a Frenchman in honor of two of the world’s best known UFO experts – Claude Poher and Jacques Vallee. Finally, he determined that the aliens would use a unique musical tone to communicate with the people of Earth.

In early 1976, while casting the movie in New York, Spielberg and TV comedy writer Jerry Belson did another rewrite that fleshed out the characters and added humor to the piece. Spielberg then gave the script to his friends (and the screenwriters of his first feature The Sugarland Express) Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins to review. They were very enthusiastic about the piece, although they did have many, many notes. Spielberg liked their suggestions, but with the movie about to enter production he didn’t have the time to implement them himself. Barwood and Robbins were hired to do an additional rewrite. They saw themselves as “mechanics” – taking ideas that Spielberg had laid out in his original drafts and “making them work in a [more] dramatic way.” During this process, they suggested Spielberg enhance the minor role of Jillian Guiler, a fellow believer who Roy meets on his way to Devil’s Tower, by giving her a young son who is kidnapped by the aliens and is then returned at the end of the movie for a tearful mother-child reunion. Spielberg loved the idea and the trio worked it into the narrative.

Although Spielberg did not do any traditional writing while the movie was in production, he did continue to craft the narrative as he shot. Based on a suggestion by Douglas Trumbull, Spielberg improvised the entire plot thread involving the Kodaly hand signals (which leads to one of the film’s most touching and iconic final moments – the lead e.t.’s final bittersweet wave to Francois Truffaut) during filming and after taking a liking to actor J. Patrick McNamara, who was originally cast to play a small part in only one brief sequence, Spielberg put him in scene after scene (often allowing him to improvise his own dialogue) until he became a major character in the movie, one who actually speaks the first line in the finished film.

When filming wrapped, Spielberg and Kahn began editing the picture. When the first cut was done, they realized that the UFO team’s subplot wasn’t as clear as it needed to be (specifically, it wasn’t clear how the team knew they had to go to Devil’s Tower to meet the aliens and also that the team was behind the gas leak cover story) so Barwood and Robbins returned to write some additional scenes set in a radio telescope that explained how the team discovers the co-ordinates for the Wyoming mountain (and in the process changed the profession of the character played by Bob Balaban – originally Truffaut’s professional translator, he was now a map-maker drafted into translation service because he happens to speak French). Finally, Spielberg added a new opening sequence (the original version began with the air traffic control sequence) in which the team discovers a fleet of fighter planes missing since WWII (and presumably stolen by the extra-terrestrials) in the Sonoran Desert.

The WGA awarded Spielberg sole screenplay credit, which Michael Phillips felt was appropriate. As he told Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride: “Close Encounters is really Steven’s script. He got help from friends and colleagues here and there, but 99.9 percent is Steven Spielberg.” Spielberg gladly accepted the credit, although during his promotional tour for the film’s release and in the years after he has always acknowledged the contributions of the other writers to the finished product.

Spielberg continue to shape his story even after the movie was released. In 1980, he re-edited the film, reinstating some bits he originally cut and deleting some things that had originally been included. He also added two new sequences: one in which the UFO team discovers a missing ship in the Gobi Desert and a second in which we find out what happens to Richard Dreyfuss after he enters the mothership. Still not satisfied, Spielberg prepared a third cut of the film in 1997, dropping the sequence set inside the mothership and adjusting a few other bits here and there. As far as we know, he hasn’t made any changes since, but given his endless inventiveness and restless creativity, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Spielberg is still honing his story four decades on. We’ll find out when Close Encounters of the Third Kind returns to theaters on September 1, 2017 for a one-week fortieth anniversary engagement.

THE END
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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Close Encounters: Why UFOs Are Having a Moment

A new biography on Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a scientist who became convinced that we truly could not identify some objects in our skies, opens up new questions about UFOs.

When the unassuming turn of phrase “unidentified flying object” was coined in the 1940s, it was intended to suggest that the objects in question were nothing more mysterious than a rogue weather balloon or an unfamiliar aircraft. UFOs have since become synonymous with aliens, from cartoon flying saucers, to abduction stories, to X-Files-style conspiracy theories &ndash in the popular imagination their mystery has been solved, UFOs equal aliens, whether you’re a true believer or not. This unshakable association came to be despite the diligent work Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a scientist who became convinced that we truly could not identify some objects in our skies, and kept pushing throughout his life for a scientific explanation, while keeping open every possibility, some of them way further out there than little green men.

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Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs, a new book by Mark O’Connell, serves as a biography for both the modern UFO phenomenon and for Hynek, an astronomer and professor at Northwestern University who died over 30 years ago, but whose ideas make him one of the most surprising scientific figures of the 20th century. The book reveals an academic committed to rigorous, methodical study, but whose deep intellectual curiosity also harbored a mystical side, intrigued by Rudolf Steiner’s concept of “supersensible knowledge” and the idea of a universe composed of many dimensions. By the time of his death in 1986, he was much more interested in the idea that UFOs might be evidence of interdimensional overlap or proof of a Jungian collective conscience, than the comparatively quotidian concept that they are vehicles carrying visitors from faraway planets.

Hynek’s struggle to properly inform the public through a dedication to the scientific method, while also embracing the very edges of what is possible strikes a chord today, in an era rife with deep mistrust of the government and of mainstream science. Conspiracy theories have moved from the fringe since we stopped agreeing on what constitutes a basic scientific fact, and there are more than a few big ones involving the coming alien takeover and of course, NASA, which sits at the intersection of science, government and outer space.

Just last week a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast, in all seriousness, that the agency does not have child slaves laboring on Mars, in response to an InfoWars segment claiming otherwise. The Disclosure movement believes that governments around the world have already been in contact with alien intelligence and have suppressed this information from the public, and no, Trump would not be tweeting about it because the President is kept out of the loop in this scenario, says O’Connell. This is deep state stuff. Even the ever-pragmatic Hillary Clinton vowed to release classified information on UFOs and aliens while being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel last year during her campaign. The unknown and how we go about knowing it is very much on our minds as a culture.

Though he would be dismayed to see that the orthodoxy of personal belief in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary has persevered, even flourished in the 21st century, Hynek would certainly find our present appetite for conspiracy and for polarized debate familiar, from climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers to the Disclosure crowd. Over his long career he learned that “It’s very, very easy to disappoint people by telling them the truth,” O’Connell tells Rolling Stone. “Everyone wants to believe that the next case is the big one, the one that finally proves that these are spaceships from another world and unfortunately, up to now that’s never been the case, but the hope just doesn’t die.”

Born a few days before Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1910, Hynek died just a few months after traveling through the comet’s wake again in 1986. He spent the interceding years as an astronomer who changed the field of celestial imaging by developing a high-altitude telescope and video telescope, founded the Corralitos Observatory in New Mexico, led a team that devised the first tracking system for satellites before there were any man-made objects in orbit, and reassured a nervous American public after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, which put him on the cover of Life magazine.

Hynek was also one of the first scientists to evaluate UFO sightings for the U.S. Air Force, working on a series of classified projects in the 1950s and 1960s. Though he started out a skeptic, he went on to found the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, landing a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind after contacting the director when he learned that the film&rsquos working title was drawn from his work.

Even more than 30 years after his death, Hynek remains a controversial figure in UFOlogy, mainly because of his refusal to choose a side. O’Connell, a screenwriter and UFO history expert who writes the blog High Strangeness, has already had some of Hynek’s legacy rub off on his own reputation, which he takes as a sign that he is following in Hynek’s footsteps as an unbiased, open-minded researcher, rather than writing for one camp or another.

“Just based on what little some people know about the book and the interviews I’ve been doing, I already have some UFO establishment figures accusing me of being a skeptic, which is really dirty word in UFO circles,” he says. “The labeling has already begun.”

Hynek proved to be a thorn in the government’s side when it came to investigating UFO reports, refusing to dismiss the unexplainable as the product of mass hysteria or unreliable witness testimony. Indeed, a great number of the seminal 20th century sightings that convinced Hynek that UFOs were worth further study involved highly credible witnesses, including airline and military pilots, law enforcement officers and Delbert Newhouse, a navy photographer who caught such an object on film in the Utah desert in 1952. Hynek though, refused to say that the strangeness of UFOs and UFO sightings proved they were alien spacecraft, which made him unpopular on the other side of the debate as well. An intellectual independent, he ended up sandwiched between the government, which demanded mundane explanations for sometimes fantastic sightings, and a public convinced that aliens walked among them.

“The inability for ambiguity to exist is a powerful force in UFO research,” O’Connell says. “You have to go one way or the other, there’s no middle ground.”

Throughout the heyday of UFO sightings, significant incidents, including reported contact with alien entities and their aircraft, frequently popped up in clusters, referred to as “flaps” by Hynek. Though the last flap occurred after Close Encounters of the Third Kind debuted in 1977, UFOs are having a moment right now, too. This year Spielberg&rsquos film celebrates its 40th anniversary, and the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” over the Cascade mountains in the Pacific Northwest by pilot Kevin Arnold, which is widely noted as the beginning of the modern UFO phenomenon, marks 70 years of celestial intrigue. The History Channel just picked up a scripted series about Project Blue Book, the UFO investigation project that Hynek led for the government in the 1950s and 60, with Robert Zemeckis as executive producer. And of course, there’s the matter of NASA’s secret slaves on Mars. Are we headed for a new flap?

O’Connell is not so sure. “You would think that this amazing advance in technology, in photo imaging would have delivered us with the perfect UFO photo by now,” he says. “You would think that but it hasn’t happened and it’s hard to decide exactly why. You can definitely argue that there are more people watching the sky with cameras in hand than ever before in human history.”

What he’s most interested in, beyond seeing Martin Freeman cast as Hynek &ndash though he was amused by the thought of David Duchovny donning the professor’s signature goatee &ndash is an embrace of Hynek’s balance of rigor and open-minded curiosity. Like Hynek himself, O’Connell wants to reposition the conversation about UFOs, as well as an agreement to adhere to the scientific method itself, back into the mainstream and plumb what might be possible, rather than single-mindedly trying to prove, or disprove the existence of aliens.

He finds some of Hynek’s heady combination of scientific rigor and mysticism in the work of quantum physics and astronomers who are working on exoplanets right now. “Both of those fields involve, in my opinion, leaps of faith, leaps of intuition,” he says. “We’ve shifted very dramatically from this idea that life on other planets must be exceedingly rare to this space where now where we’re talking in terms of life in the universe being unbelievably abundant because we keep on finding all these goldilocks planets with our high powered space telescopes. Those are the two areas where I see that same kind of thinking that same kind of approach to science coming back to the way that Hynek saw things.”


Spielberg, Close Encounters, and Conspiracy Theories

Since its original cinematic release in 1977, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind has been the subject of fervent speculation in the UFO conspiracy community.

Many UFO buffs are convinced that the movie was produced as part of an official acclimation program in anticipation of an alien “disclosure” event. This speculation can be traced back to the production of the movie itself.

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On 23 July 1976, after a hard day’s shoot, around forty of the cast and crew, including stars Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, gathered in the sticky night air of Mobile, Alabama, to hear a lecture delivered by the movie’s appointed advisor on UFOs, Professor J. Allen Hynek (the famed astronomer had been flown in for a brief cameo in the closing scenes).

Shortly after Hynek’s lecture, actor Bob Balaban (who plays the character of translator David Laughlin), began to discuss with his colleagues an intriguing rumour that had been circulating during the production—“a rumour,” wrote Balaban in his production diary, “that the film is part of the necessary training that the human race must go through in order to accept an actual landing, and is being secretly sponsored by a government UFO agency.”

In 2014, I had the opportunity to interview Close Encountersproduction designer, Joe Alves. I asked him if ever he had heard any such rumours during the shoot, and if there was any substance to them. “There were a lot of rumours,” he told me, ambiguously, before changing the subject.

Back in 1977, even Spielberg himself seemed to be dropping hints: “I wouldn’t put it past this government that a cosmic Watergate has been underway for the last 25 years,” the director remarked during a Close Encounters promotional interview, “eventually they might want to tell us something about what they’ve discovered over the decades.”

During the same interview, the director spoke with relish of “rumours” that President Carter was due to make “some unsettling disclosures” about UFOs later that year. Needless to say, no such disclosures were forthcoming.

Particularly curious is that the Carter Presidential Library contains no record of the film-loving President ever having viewed Close Encounters while in office.

However, in a 1977 Canadian TV interview conducted directly after the movie’s theatrical release, Spielberg said matter-of-factly that Carter had viewed the movie “Last Saturday.” Spielberg remarked, “We haven’t heard the direct feedback,” but added, “We hear he [Carter] liked it quite a bit.”

The following March, The Phoenix Gazette cited Close Encounters as “Jimmy Carter’s favorite movie,” noting that “The President has seen the movie many times.” This is not the only discrepancy over the official record concerning Carter and Spielberg.

Officially, Spielberg never set foot in the Carter White House and had never met the President, and yet a solitary photocopy of a photograph discovered in the Carter Presidential Library proves that the two men did meet.

The photo shows Carter and Spielberg engaged in conversation and is signed: “To Steven Spielberg, [from] Jimmy Carter.” An accompanying White House stationary note signed by White House Social Secretary Gretchen Poston and addressed to Spielberg reads: “The President thought you would enjoy receiving the enclosed photograph.”

This apparent secrecy almost certainly resulted from a desire among Carter’s staff to keep the Administration from being further publicly associated with flying saucers. Famously, Carter had his own UFO sighting in 1969 in Leary, Georgia, witnessing a bright white round object that approached his position before stopping and then receding into the distance.

Carter was with twelve other people at the time, all of whom witnessed the strange phenomenon. Needless to say, a UFO-spotting President viewing the ultimate UFO movie at the White House and having get-togethers with its alien-obsessed director would have been a PR nightmare.

By far the most outlandish of the conspiracy theories surrounding Close Encounters relates to Project Serpo—an alleged human/alien exchange program between US military personnel and a race of extraterrestrials from the Zeta Reticuli star system.

The story goes that, in July of 1965, twelve astronauts were taken to the planet Serpo aboard an alien spaceship and remained there for thirteen years. In exchange, the aliens left one of their own in the custody of the US government.

This story didn’t emerge until 2005 in the form of a string of anonymous emails that were sent to selected UFO researchers, including Project Camelot/Avalon’s Bill Ryan, who created a website dedicated to the “leaks.”

The Serpo story lead some in the conspiracy community to speculate that Close Encounters was partly inspired by the alleged alien-human exchange program of 1965, which assumes that Spielberg himself was privy to inside information on the UFO issue.

In the movie’s final scenes, a taller alien (designed by effects expert Carlo Rambaldi) is seen to exit the mothership and communicate with the character of Claude Lacombe via a series of hand gestures. Immediately before this we see twelve scientists clad in jumpsuits preparing to board the mothership and take permanent leave of planet Earth. Roy Neary joins the group as its thirteenth member.

It is important to note that the Serpo story, which has not a shred of evidence to support it, did not emerge until 2005, twenty-eight years after the release of Close Encounters. It’s probably safe to assume then that former inspired the latter, rather than vice versa.

Whether or not there is any truth to the conspiracy theories surrounding Close Encounters, Spielberg’s movie remains hugely significant for the fact that it played a central role in Hollywood’s mid-to-late-1970s economic revival—its $338 million worldwide box-office gross forced crusty studio executives to recognize America’s vast and largely neglected youth market and to adapt their output accordingly.

Two other alien-themed movies of the period would also play a key role in this industrial paradigm shift: Star Wars (1977) and Superman(1978).

Together, these three films about the wonders of the universe acted as adrenalin, shot straight into the heart of a dying industry (though many critics would argue, perhaps justifiably, that this adrenalin acted as poison in the long-term, stifling creativity and individuality in Hollywood).

Spielberg’s film also reignited public curiosity about UFOs as an enduring enigma, and its release closely coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Roswell Incident.

Just one year later, Jesse Marcel would spill the beans on his first-hand experiences of that event, opening the floodgates for hundreds more closely-corresponding Roswell testimonies.

With Vietnam and Watergate still fresh in the mind, Close Encounters came as a reassuring hug for America towards the end of a decade of disillusionment, and Spielberg’s movie would redefine Hollywood’s working relationship with aliens for much of the 1980s, resulting in movies such as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Starman, Batteries Not Included, and The Abyss, to name but a few.

Thanks to Close Encounters, what for so many decades had come only to conquer, could now come in peace.


Check Out Leif's Books on Amazon

The first three base classifications are Nocturnal Lights, which is seeing lights in the night sky that don’t behave like normal planetary aircraft Daylight Discs, which are discoidal or oval shaped discs seen in the daytime and Radar-Visual, which is a UFO report that has radar confirmation.

Close Encounters of the First Kind

Close encounters of the first kind, CE1, is a visual sighting of an unidentified flying object, seemingly less that 500 feet away, that show an appreciable angular extension and considerable detail.

Close Encounters of the Second Kind

Close encounters of the second kind, CE2, is an event where physical effects have been noted. This includes a wide range of items, including but not limited to, scorched ground, chemical traces, impressions in the ground, animal reactions, and interference in the functioning of electronic devices.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close encounters of the third kind, CE3, are UFO encounters where creatures are present. Anything from humanoids, robots, or living entities that appear to be occupants of pilots of the craft.

These three main categories formed the basis of the classification system for UFO research. Hynek himself even acted as consultant and had a brief, on-screen role, in the Steven Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film helped bring the classification system into the mainstream awareness.

Various other researchers and scientists have attempted to expand upon the original system, adding more classes and various sub-classes, but the main classes are the ones that are still used and accepted today. The most agreed upon extensions of the scale add four more levels.

A close encounter of the fourth kind is abduction. Some argue that CE4 should also include cases with transformations of reality, such as missing time and induced dream states. A close encounter of the fifth kind involves direct communication between humans and Aliens. A close encounter of the sixth kind is death of a human or animal by a non-Earth entity. A close encounter of the seventh kind is the creation of an alien/human hybrid, by natural reproduction or artificial methods.

It’s interesting to look at the different opinions on the scale. UFO researchers will debate over where a particular event should be classified or what other events should be included on the scale. Some add the Bloecher Subtypes for Hynek’s scale, others consider Hynek’s original scale the only valid rating system. Some people will argue that the entire scale is unscientific fiction while others argue that if the government sanctioned a system to classify an event, they must believe that the event is true.

In any case, the Hynek system is still the most widely used and known system for classifying UFO and Alien events. It’s been used and copied since its creation in science fiction and will continue to be relied upon in the future. For observers, it makes classifying the unknown events in our world easy and understandable, even if the events themselves are things we cannot yet comprehend. If you are intrigued by the Hynek scale and want to see more science fiction playing out in the real world, head over to my website, www.leifericksonwriting.com and buy my science fiction books today. Thanks.

Hynek, Allen J. (1998) [First published 1972]. The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-1-56924-782-2.

Clark, Jerome (1998). The UFO Book. Detroit: Visible Ink Press.

Hendry, Allan (August 1979). The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating and Reporting UFO Sightings. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-14348-6.

  1. Allen Hynek (1972). The UFO Experience: A scientific inquiry. Henry Regnery Company. ISBN 0-8094-8054-9.

Daugherty, Greg. “Meet J. Allen Hynek, the Astronomer Who First Classified UFO ‘Close Encounters'”. HISTORY.


US Air Force consultant astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek reveiews the Condon report:

The Condon Report and UFOs

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, April 1969, p. 39-42.

Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, a report by Dr. Edward U. Condon, Director of the University of Colorado Project. Bantam Books, New York, in association with the New York Times. 965 pages, including index. $ 1.95 paper.

Reviewed by Dr. J. Allen Hynek

As consultant on UFOs to the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years, Dr. Hynek has examined thousands of reports of "flying saucers" and investigated many of them personally. At the beginning of his consultative assignment, his mission was to determine which of the sightings were due to astronomical phenomena - meteors, planets, or stars. By the end of 1949, Dr. Hynek had examined about as many UFO cases as the Condon Report staff has. He came to the same conclusion as Dr. Condon - that the UFO phenomenon was hardly worth serious scientific consideration. In the years since then, however, Dr. Hynek has had reason to change his earlier opinion. He does not agree with the Condon Report and in this review essay he tells why. Dr. Hynek is head of the Department of Astronomy and director of the Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center of Northwestern University.

Physical scientists who know Edward U . Condon through his work in molecular physics and quantum mechanics will find the hand of the master strangely missing in Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. Not only is his talent for organizing and deftly attacking a problem unapparent but, for example, he is not listed as having personally looked into any of the 95 cases to which various members of the rather fluid committee addressed themselves. (Yet his characteristic humor comes through delightfully in his chapter on the recent history of the UFO.)

It is unfortunate that, almost certainly, popular history will henceforth link Dr. Condon's name with UFOs and only the arcane history of physics will accord him his true place and record his brilliant career in contributing to the understanding, with mathematical elegance, of the nature of the physical world. These contributions UFOs cannot take away from him, even though his work with this problem is analogous to that of a Mozart producing an uninspired pot-boiler, unworthy of his talents.

The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects is a strange sort of scientific paper and does not fulfill the promise of its title. Even the color- cover (over which Condon, however, probably had no control) is misleading. Instead of portraying one of the relatively few photographs that remain unidentified we find an immediately identifiable photo of a lens flare.

The report essentially is a collection of case histories and special reports by members of Dr. Condon's staff and investigators working under contract with the University of Colorado. Scientifically trained readers will find these papers as troublesome and dull to read as they probably were to write.

While devoted in the large part to exposing hoaxes or revealing many UFOs as misidentifications of common occurrences, the book leaves the same strange, inexplicable residue of unknowns which has plagued the U.S. Air Force investigation for 20 years. In fact, the percentage of "unknowns" in the Condon report appears to be even higher than in the Air Force investigation (Project Blue Book) - which led to the Condon investigation in the first place. Every contributor to the report finds in his particular area of examination (photos, radar-visual sightings, physical evidence, etc. ) something that cannot be dismissed as a misidentification of known phenomena.

One of the contributors, Dr. William K. Hartmann, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, sums up the overall situation as follows: "The present data are compatible with but do not establish either the hypothesis that (1) the entire UFO phenomenon is a product of misidentification, poor reporting and fabrication, or that (2) a very small part of the UFO phenomenon involves extraordinary events."

"An unidentified flying object (UFO, pronounced OOFO) is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on the earth) which the observer could not identify as having an ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him sufficiently puzzling that he undertook to make a report of it to police, to government officials, to the press, or perhaps to a representative of a private organization devoted to the study of such objects."

"Defined in this way, there is no question as to the existence of UFOs, because UFO reports exist in fairly large numbers, and the stimulus for each report is, by this definition, an UFO. The problem then becomes that of learning to recognize the various kinds of stimuli that give rise to UFO reports."

The UFO is "the stimulus for a report. " This language refrains from saying whether the reported object was a real, physical, material thing, or a visual impression of an ordinary physical thing distorted by atmospheric conditions or by faulty vision so as to be unrecognizable, or whether it was a purely mental delusion existing in the mind of the observer without an accompanying visual stimulus.

There are other, more provocative statements buried deep within the report. They do not support its overall conclusion that UFO studies do not offer a fruitful field in which to look for major scientific discoveries. Examples are such comments as "unidentified after analysis," or "conceivable but unlikely misidentification with birds, aircraft, etc."

Electrical damping puzzle

One puzzling aspect of some UFO reports is an electrical damping effect which, according to witnesses, interrupts the ignition and shuts off the engine and lights of a moving automobile. Only one of these cases was examined in the report. The conclusion was "No satisfactory explanation for such effects, if indeed they occurred, is apparent." This reasoning seems to attempt to resolve the problem by dismissing it. One may ask - was it not the function of the investigation to determine whether these reported events did indeed occur? More than 100 cases of electrical or electromagnetic interaction between UFOs and automobiles have been reported, yet the Condon report states: "During the period of field study only one case of automobile engine malfunction came to our attention. There was some ground for skepticism about the report, in that it was made by a diabetic patient who had been drinking and was returning home from a party at 3:00 A.M."

This case is not one of the group I refer to and under the circumstances should have been excluded from the study.

There are other puzzlers described in the report, such as this comment on a UFO sighting claim: "The residue is a most intriguing report that must certainly be classed as an unknown pending further study, which it certainly deserves. It does appear that this sighting defies explanation by conventional means."

UFOs in orbit

During manned space flights, United States astronauts have reported a number of UFO sightings. One of the Condon group's principal investigators, Franklin Roach, an astronomer, writes: "The three unexplained sightings which have been gleaned from a great mass of reports are a challenge to the analyst."

Over the last 20 years, some of the most baffling cases are those involving radar contacts with as well as visual sightings of the same object. The Condon report does not resolve this long-standing problem. Of one such case, Cordon D. Thayer of the Environmental Science Services Administration, a staff member of Colorado Project, observed: "This must remain as one of the most puzzling radar cases on record and no conclusion is possible at this time. It seems inconceivable that an anomalous propagation (AP) echo would behave in the manner described, even if AP had been likely at the time. In view of meteorological situation it would seem that AP was rather unlikely. Besides, what is the probability that an AP return would appear only once, and at that time appear to execute a perfect ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach?"

Again, a staff report comments: "In conclusion, although conventional or natural explanations certainly cannot be ruled out, the probability of such seems low in this case and the probability that at least one genuine UFO was involved appears to be fairly high."

A challenge to curiosity

Admittedly, I have taken these statements out of context and the great bulk of the report over-balances them. But the cases these statements refer to are glaringly there - an outright challenge to human curiosity, the foundation stone of scientific progress. It is difficult to understand why the National Academy of Sciences has fully indorsed Dr. Condon's opinion that no further work on the UFO phenomenon should be done.

As scientific director of the project created to study the vexing problem of UFOs, Dr. Condon undertook a responsibility which may have been distasteful to him from the start. He did so very likely out of a sense of duty, in the same manner that one might, with a deep breath (but through a handkerchief) undertake to sweep out an ill-kept stable. What an Augean stable it was, Condon undoubtedly did not realize, and I feel he grossly underestimated the scope and nature of the problem he was undertaking.

Now, as any scientist would, Dr. Condon defined his terms at the start, but in his very definition of the UFO he fell into a trap. Dr. Condon states, "An unidentified flying object . is defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flying but seen when landed on the earth) which the observer could not identify as having an ordinary natural origin."

The unmanagability of this definition is brought out well in Samuel Rosenberg's chapter, "UFO's in History: ". a report of all such sightings of mysterious objects which the observer 'could not identify' would fill the entire space devoted to the project as a whole." And then some! For, in another section of the report, it is pointed out that perhaps a few as 10 per cent of sightings of UFOs are ever reported. And that percentage relates to this country, while the UFO phenomenon is global. In discussing ancient reports, Rosenberg makes the observation that most everything in the sky was a UFO to pre-scientific man: auroras, lunar halos, rainbows, tornados, lightning - even the sun and the moon. And "what wild guesses were made," continues Rosenberg. Just as today, one might add, guesses are made about things which have not been admitted onto the playing field of science.

Anatomy of a case

By adopting so broad a definition of UFO, too much was admitted for the possible study when only limited time and funds were available. let us suppose Condon had adopted this definition instead: A UFO is a report. the contents of which are puzzling not only to the observer but to others who have the technical training the observer may lack.

Why clutter up a study with reports which a cursory examination by people experienced with the subject could almost certainly have dismissed as Venus, a balloon, or a twinkling star? It may be of interest to sociologists that a large percentage of our population cannot identify a bright planet or a bright meteor, but it is of little value to include such trivial cases when others left untouched are truly puzzling (reported effects on car ignition systems, effects on animals and people, cases which have had a traumatic effect on the witnesses, and in some instance, have changed the tenor of their lives, close encounters with craft and blinding lights). Should not the purpose of a study such as Dr. Condon's have been to determine whether there was anything to truly puzzling reports - not to obvious cases of trivial misidentifications?

On the basis of many years experience with the UFO phenomenon, I would have deleted nearly two-thirds of the cases included in the report as potentially profitless for the avowed purposes of the project as stated by Dr. Condon himself: "As indicated by its title, the emphasis of this study has been on attempting to learn from UFO reports anything that could be considered as adding to scientific knowledge." Examining reports that stem from obvious (to anyone with experience in these things) misidentifications of planets, stars, etc., can add little to scientific knowledge. Far greater care should have been taken in screening cases to be studied, for, as Thurston E Manning, Vice President for Academic Affairs of the University of Colorado, writes: "The reader should thus bear in mind that this study represents the first attempt by a group of highly qualified scientists and specialists to examine coldly and dispassionately. " What? Misidentifications of Venus, the predicted (by mental telepathy) landing of a UFO, obvious radar chaff, an admitted balloon prank by some students (admitted within hours of receipt of the report by the staff), a smoke ring from a simulated A-bomb explosion at a military installation, the nightly setting of the planets Venus and Saturn, an obvious power outage caused by a short circuit accompanied by bright flashes, a two to three second observation of a flash of light which almost certainly was a meteor? Even a preliminary evaluation of these incidents should have indicated that it was a waste of time to investigate them.

The "Strangeness index"

Over the years I have used a very simple two-dimensional classification method for screening UFO reports for potential scientific value. It is a simple plot of "strangeness" against "credibility of witnesses." "Strangeness" is a measure of the difficulty of fitting, by scientifically trained persons, the contents of a report to a highly likely physical explanation. Thus, if a bright streak of light is seen to course across the sky in a matter of seconds, there certainly is no reason after even a glance to suggest that the stimulus was anything other than a bright meteor - and one can assign this report a strangeness of 1, or at most, 2.

If, on the other hand, a metallic craft, brilliantly lighted, is reported to have been observed to land, or to have cavorted about the skies in a most "unscientific" manner, this calls for a higher strangeness index. Of course, nothing has been said about believing the contents of the report. But one can, by proper investigation and application of tests, make a meaningful effort to evaluate the witnesses of a UFO "happening" in terms of everyday credibility. Are these "reliable" witnesses do they pay their debts, are they highly regarded in the community, would they have had any reason to profit from making their report, would it be more likely that they would have suffered by making the report in the first place? Is there anything to indicate that their emotional nature is such as to cause them to react to perceptual stimuli in a manner to make a "UFO mountain" out of an everyday molehill?

A proper study of the UFO phenomenon for the purposes of assaying potential scientific value implies a preliminary stage in which cases of high strangeness, reported by witnesses of respected standing to their communities, are selected for detailed study. Out of 21 radar-visual cases studied by Thayer, only to 3 would I have assigned a, sigma (strangeness) of 4, and none of 5 . I would have assigned to the other 18 a sigma of 1, 2, or 3. Admittedly the assignment of these ratings to cases is a matter of individual judgment, but when several independent assessments are made by qualified persons, there is fair agreement, especially as to the "strangeness" of a case credibility is obviously open to greater variance.

Both the public and the project staff, apparently, have confused the UFO problem with the ETI (extra-terrestrial intelligence) hypothesis. This may hold the greatest popular interest, but it is not the issue. The issue is: Does a legitimate UFO phenomenon exist?

Let us suppose that a committee of nineteenth century scientists had been asked to investigate the phenomenon of the aurora as a single project. It would not have been responsible to state that the polar phenomenon gave no evidence of the existence of some meta-terrestrial intelligence. The issue would have been whether the aurora could be explained in terms of nineteenth century physics.

It may be that UFO Phenomena are just as inexplicable in terms of twentieth century physics. From this point of view, how does the Condon Report serve science when it suggests that a phenomenon which has been reported by many thousands of people over so long a time is unworthy of further scientific attention?

Investigative experience over the last 20 years has indicated to me that the UFO phenomenon, if it be physically real, is a rare avis. I suggest that of all the cases studied in the report, the following might be truly worthy of study in depth: Cases 2, p. 248 5, p. 260 10, p. 277 46, p. 396 57, p. 469 19-B, p. 161 14 Na, p. 127 14-Nb, p. 128 unnumbered case, p. 139 1482-N, p. 143 and unnumbered case, p. 236.

While it was perhaps laudable to ask an untried, and therefore, presumably, unbiased group to take a fresh look at the UFO problem, this procedure was akin to asking a group of culinary novices to take a fresh look at cooking and then open a restaurant. Without seasoned advice, there would be many burned pots, many burned fingers, many dissatisfied customers.

Much of the time of the project personnel, it appears to me, was spent in groping for a methodology. It appears also that graduate students did the yeoman part of the investigations in the relatively few field trips made, a result, undoubtedly, of limited funds.

Finally, in the matter of methodology a philosopher of science would find a serious operational and epistemological flaw: An hypothesis which covers everything covers nothing. Let us state this in the form of a UFO theorem: For any given reported UFO case, if taken by itself and without respect and regard to correlations with other truly puzzling reports in this and other countries, a possible natural, even though far-fetched, explanation can always be adduced. This is so if one operates solely on the hypothesis that all UFO reports, by the very nature of things as we know them, must result from well known and accepted causes.

It follows as a corollary that it would have been impossible for the Condon investigation to have regarded any report as arising from anything other than natural causes, a hoax, or a hallucination. Thus, for instance, we have this astonishing analysis (Case not numbered, p. 140): "This unusual sighting should therefore be assigned to the category of some almost certainly natural phenomenon which is so rare that it apparently has never been reported before or since."

Obviously this statement could be made of any puzzling case. Or, (p. 164, Case 2): "In summary, this is the most puzzling and unusual case in the radar-visual file. The apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of the sighting. However, in view of the inevitable fallibility of witnesses, more conventional explanations of this report cannot be entirely ruled out." in Case 46 (p. 407) the investigator is hard pressed, but still applies the theorem: "This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses. It cannot be said that the evidence positively rules out a fabrication, although there are some physical factors such as the accuracy of certain photometric measures of the original negatives which argue against a fabrication." Final verdict: "fabrication."

Final judgment of the work of the Condon Committee, which was not a study of truly Unidentified Flying Objects, but largely of easily identifiable objects will be handed down by the UFO phenomenon itself. Past experience suggests that it cannot be readily waved away.

There is, however, one area in which the reviewer is in accord with Dr. Condon, and that is in his recommendation that science credit not be given in elementary schools for term papers and projects on UFOs. School children are too lacking in critical faculties to be turned loose in UFO land. Present material available to them is apt to be pulp "literature," itself written sensationally and uncritically, cases undocumented, with no attention whatever to analysis a mere collection of sensationalized anecdotes.

If the Condon Report helps to clear away the miasma of pseudo-science, wishful thinking, and sensationalism in this area, the stage may yet be prepared for a more effective study of the strange and perplexing phenomenon of UFOs. To this end, care should be taken that the files of the Condon Committee not be destroyed, as reportedly were the data in a 1953 investigation of UFOs by another Air Force contractor whose identity was classified and whose data led to Report No. 14 of Project Blue Book.


Close Encounters: Why UFOs Are Having a Moment

When the unassuming turn of phrase “unidentified flying object” was coined in the 1940s, it was intended to suggest that the objects in question were nothing more mysterious than a rogue weather balloon or an unfamiliar aircraft. UFOs have since become synonymous with aliens, from cartoon flying saucers, to abduction stories, to X-Files-style conspiracy theories – in the popular imagination their mystery has been solved, UFOs equal aliens, whether you’re a true believer or not. This unshakable association came to be despite the diligent work Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a scientist who became convinced that we truly could not identify some objects in our skies, and kept pushing throughout his life for a scientific explanation, while keeping open every possibility, some of them way further out there than little green men.

Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs, a new book by Mark O’Connell, serves as a biography for both the modern UFO phenomenon and for Hynek, an astronomer and professor at Northwestern University who died over 30 years ago, but whose ideas make him one of the most surprising scientific figures of the 20th century. The book reveals an academic committed to rigorous, methodical study, but whose deep intellectual curiosity also harbored a mystical side, intrigued by Rudolf Steiner’s concept of “supersensible knowledge” and the idea of a universe composed of many dimensions. By the time of his death in 1986, he was much more interested in the idea that UFOs might be evidence of interdimensional overlap or proof of a Jungian collective conscience, than the comparatively quotidian concept that they are vehicles carrying visitors from faraway planets.

Hynek’s struggle to properly inform the public through a dedication to the scientific method, while also embracing the very edges of what is possible strikes a chord today, in an era rife with deep mistrust of the government and of mainstream science. Conspiracy theories have moved from the fringe since we stopped agreeing on what constitutes a basic scientific fact, and there are more than a few big ones involving the coming alien takeover and of course, NASA, which sits at the intersection of science, government and outer space.

Just last week a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast, in all seriousness, that the agency does not have child slaves laboring on Mars, in response to an InfoWars segment claiming otherwise. The Disclosure movement believes that governments around the world have already been in contact with alien intelligence and have suppressed this information from the public, and no, Trump would not be tweeting about it because the President is kept out of the loop in this scenario, says O’Connell. This is deep state stuff. Even the ever-pragmatic Hillary Clinton vowed to release classified information on UFOs and aliens while being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel last year during her campaign. The unknown and how we go about knowing it is very much on our minds as a culture.

Though he would be dismayed to see that the orthodoxy of personal belief in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary has persevered, even flourished in the 21st century, Hynek would certainly find our present appetite for conspiracy and for polarized debate familiar, from climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers to the Disclosure crowd. Over his long career he learned that “It’s very, very easy to disappoint people by telling them the truth,” O’Connell tells Rolling Stone. “Everyone wants to believe that the next case is the big one, the one that finally proves that these are spaceships from another world and unfortunately, up to now that’s never been the case, but the hope just doesn’t die.”

Born a few days before Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1910, Hynek died just a few months after traveling through the comet’s wake again in 1986. He spent the interceding years as an astronomer who changed the field of celestial imaging by developing a high-altitude telescope and video telescope, founded the Corralitos Observatory in New Mexico, led a team that devised the first tracking system for satellites before there were any man-made objects in orbit, and reassured a nervous American public after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, which put him on the cover of Life magazine.

Hynek was also one of the first scientists to evaluate UFO sightings for the U.S. Air Force, working on a series of classified projects in the 1950s and 1960s. Though he started out a skeptic, he went on to found the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, landing a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind after contacting the director when he learned that the film’s working title was drawn from his work.

Even more than 30 years after his death, Hynek remains a controversial figure in UFOlogy, mainly because of his refusal to choose a side. O’Connell, a screenwriter and UFO history expert who writes the blog High Strangeness, has already had some of Hynek’s legacy rub off on his own reputation, which he takes as a sign that he is following in Hynek’s footsteps as an unbiased, open-minded researcher, rather than writing for one camp or another.

“Just based on what little some people know about the book and the interviews I’ve been doing, I already have some UFO establishment figures accusing me of being a skeptic, which is really dirty word in UFO circles,” he says. “The labeling has already begun.”

Hynek proved to be a thorn in the government’s side when it came to investigating UFO reports, refusing to dismiss the unexplainable as the product of mass hysteria or unreliable witness testimony. Indeed, a great number of the seminal 20th century sightings that convinced Hynek that UFOs were worth further study involved highly credible witnesses, including airline and military pilots, law enforcement officers and Delbert Newhouse, a navy photographer who caught such an object on film in the Utah desert in 1952. Hynek though, refused to say that the strangeness of UFOs and UFO sightings proved they were alien spacecraft, which made him unpopular on the other side of the debate as well. An intellectual independent, he ended up sandwiched between the government, which demanded mundane explanations for sometimes fantastic sightings, and a public convinced that aliens walked among them.

“The inability for ambiguity to exist is a powerful force in UFO research,” O’Connell says. “You have to go one way or the other, there’s no middle ground.”

Throughout the heyday of UFO sightings, significant incidents, including reported contact with alien entities and their aircraft, frequently popped up in clusters, referred to as “flaps” by Hynek. Though the last flap occurred after Close Encounters of the Third Kind debuted in 1977, UFOs are having a moment right now, too. This year Spielberg’s film celebrates its 40th anniversary, and the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” over the Cascade mountains in the Pacific Northwest by pilot Kevin Arnold, which is widely noted as the beginning of the modern UFO phenomenon, marks 70 years of celestial intrigue. The History Channel just picked up a scripted series about Project Blue Book, the UFO investigation project that Hynek led for the government in the 1950s and 60, with Robert Zemeckis as executive producer. And of course, there’s the matter of NASA’s secret slaves on Mars. Are we headed for a new flap?

O’Connell is not so sure. “You would think that this amazing advance in technology, in photo imaging would have delivered us with the perfect UFO photo by now,” he says. “You would think that but it hasn’t happened and it’s hard to decide exactly why. You can definitely argue that there are more people watching the sky with cameras in hand than ever before in human history.”

What he’s most interested in, beyond seeing Martin Freeman cast as Hynek – though he was amused by the thought of David Duchovny donning the professor’s signature goatee – is an embrace of Hynek’s balance of rigor and open-minded curiosity. Like Hynek himself, O’Connell wants to reposition the conversation about UFOs, as well as an agreement to adhere to the scientific method itself, back into the mainstream and plumb what might be possible, rather than single-mindedly trying to prove, or disprove the existence of aliens.

He finds some of Hynek’s heady combination of scientific rigor and mysticism in the work of quantum physics and astronomers who are working on exoplanets right now. “Both of those fields involve, in my opinion, leaps of faith, leaps of intuition,” he says. “We’ve shifted very dramatically from this idea that life on other planets must be exceedingly rare to this space where now where we’re talking in terms of life in the universe being unbelievably abundant because we keep on finding all these goldilocks planets with our high powered space telescopes. Those are the two areas where I see that same kind of thinking that same kind of approach to science coming back to the way that Hynek saw things.”