The Close Encounters Man
How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs
For the first time in a half-century, Congress recently held a hearing on what many of us call “UFOs,” unidentified flying objects. Certain others of us, of course, now insist they must be called “UAPs,” unidentified aerial phenomena. Take your pick. UFOs/UAPs, whatever they are, have been zipping and maneuvering through our skies for many decades and (we suspect for much longer). And we still have no idea what they really are, what they are up to, and why they keep bothering to mess with us.
The Congressional hearing featured not only scientists and investigators but a House of Representatives subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism. Basically, the military finally admitted that UFO/UAPs are real. And the Representatives predictably split along party lines, with Democrats seemingly more tuned toward scientific investigation and factfinding and Republicans muttering darkly about threats to national security and no doubt hoping to find ways to blame Joe Biden for recent surges in UFO/UAP sightings.
With America’s military and assorted civilian groups now putting a renewed focus on solving the UFO/UAP mystery, this seems a good time to remember astronomer J. Allen Hynek, the man who initially claimed people were just seeing flares of swamp gas, atmospheric eddies, and “ordinary celestial objects” in the sky. As Mark O’Connell’s 2017 biography, The Close Encounters Man, makes clear, Hynek (who died in 1986) was both a well-respected astronomer with significant scientific credits and, at first, strongly skeptical that UFOs/UAPs were real. Indeed, he was recruited in 1948 by the U.S. Air Force to help debunk the many sightings that were being reported by civilians, police officers, and military personnel. But he and others could not explain away 20 percent of the cases. Five years later, when Hynek was asked again to help the Air Force investigate UFOs/UAPs, he again saw that 20% of the reports coming in continued to be classified as “unidentified.”
Photo by Si Dunn
O’Connell’s book smoothly lays out the story of how Hynek gradually changed from being a skeptic to believing that at least some UFO/UAP sightings are real and deserve deeper scientific investigation. The author had significant access to Hynek’s personal and professional files, as well as other materials, and his work is absorbing, informative, and often entertaining reading. (The book’s subtitle, however, goes well over the book-marketing top and should be disregarded.)
J. Allen Hynek is remembered today as the “Close Encounters” man because he came up with the terms “Close Encounters of the First, Second, and Third Kind.” Hynek defined a Close Encounter of the First Kind, the author explains, as seeing “a UFO within five hundred feet or so, close enough to make out detail but not so close as to make physical contact.” Hynek’s definition of a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, O’Connell noted, “is one in which the UFO has a physical effect on the environment, such as scorching nearby plants, leaving strange markings on the ground, or causing a car’s engine to stall.” And, O’Connell writes, Hynek considered a Close Encounter of the Third Kind as one in which the witness sees and sometimes interacts with beings that appear with the UFO.”
I have written elsewhere about my own UFO experiences during childhood, and I confess that I had long disliked Hynek because I knew about his public statements about “swamp gas” and other dismissive responses to UFO questions in the 1950s. The Close Encounters Man has been surprising reading for me. J. Allen Hynek comes across as a man who could look at facts objectively, change his mind about his previous, dismissive declarations, and go public with his new views. Indeed, his changed position surprised and encouraged many people who had held back reporting their UFO/UAP experiences out of fear of being ridiculed or thought crazy. Relective of his changed views, Hynek founded the Center for UFO Studies in 1973. It’s now known as the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies.
In the Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Hynek makes a brief, Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo appearance for about six seconds in the film. As McConnell describes it: “…Hynek is shown stepping forward toward the colossal mothership as all the other scientists hold back. As he approaches the intense light of the alien craft, he thoughtfully strokes his goatee and fingers his pipe before putting it in his mouth. [H]e seems for all the world as though he belongs, as if he were meant to be there.”
He was. And his efforts hopefully will be remembered and drawn upon as new investigations into UFOs and UAPs move forward.