J. Allen Hynek as he appeared in Steven Spielberg’s film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

You probably never heard of  Josef Allen Hynek. He was born in Chicago in 1910 and is best known – if you know of him at all – for his work with a series of government projects to investigate reports of flying saucer sightings.

This astrophysicist and “ufologist” was connected to the U.S. Air Force’s Project Sign in 1948. The project was changed to Project Grudge and then, finally, Project Blue Book in 1952.

Hynek was brought on board as a scientific consultant and skeptic. It was his job was to investigate claims of unidentified flying objects. He saw his role as being a government debunker.

As time passed, he encountered more sightings that were reported by pilots, astronauts, and fellow astronomers. These “reliable witnesses” began to change his outlook on UFOs.

He finally came to a period of frustration when the Air Force and the scientific community that he was a part of refused to even accept the  possibility of UFOs.

“As a scientist, I must be mindful of the past; all too often it has happened that matters of great value to science were overlooked because the new phenomenon did not fit the accepted scientific outlook of the time.”

Hynek never said he believed that UFOs were travelers from the deep space. In fact, back in 1976, he said “To me, it seems ridiculous that super intelligences would travel great distances to do relatively stupid things like stop cars, collect soil samples, and frighten people. I think we must begin to reexamine the evidence. We must begin to look closer to home.”

Then what was the explanation of the sightings?  he thought they could be “an aspect or domain of the natural world not yet explored by science.”  Maybe he actually went further in his speculation than the hardcore ufologists of the time because he accepted as a possibility that they were visitors from other dimensions.

It was Hynek that developed the “close encounter” method of categorizing UFO sightings. A close encounter is an event in which a person witnesses an unidentified flying object.

I have wanted to have a close encounter since I was a kid – no matter how much those aliens on TV, movies and in books wanted to scare me.

I think I may have encountered a UFO once over a lake in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. But I never was able to find any evidence of what I saw as either extraterrestrials or in manmade or natural terms.

Hynek wrote in his 1972 book, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry,  about  three kinds of encounters. (Other people have suggested sub-types.)

My own sighting would be classified as the first kind: sightings more than 500 feet (150 m) from the witness. These include “Daylight Discs,””Radar/Visual Reports” or my own type – “Nocturnal Lights”

Sightings under 500 feet are subclassified as various types of “close encounters” because Hynek felt that proximity reduced the possibility of misidentifying conventional aircraft or other known phenomena.

More people have heard of encounters of the third kind because of the Steven Spielberg film in 1977 that uses the classification as its title, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Level three is the scariest, or the most wonderful, depending on your point of view – contact with aliens.

J. Allen Hynek served as a consultant for Spielberg’s film and has a cameo appearance near the end. He is the bearded man with a pipe who steps from the crowd and looks at the spacecraft with that childlike wonder that the film encourages.

Have you ever had an encounter? Would you be open to the experience or fearful? Do you view an alien encounter as being like Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, or more like his 2005 remake of  War of the Worlds?