Is there a role for fiction in telling the story of a man’s life? Just the facts, ma’am? Or can you sensationalize and embellish the details to make him more exciting? What if the life he led was already extraordinary?
This is the problem with the History Channel’s new series Project Blue Book, a very creative and frequently frustrating retelling of the life and work of UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. There is no right answer to the above questions. Hynek was a polarizing figure in both the worlds of popular culture and hard science. He was the first true superstar in the field of ufology and wrote the book on UFOs. The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (1972) created much of the vocabulary we still use today to describe UFOs, alien life, and the experiences of those who claim to have seen both. His taxonomy of UFO experiences, the Close Encounters scale, extended well beyond the margins of the UFO community, inspiring works of fiction like Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
But Hynek and his research were also strongly criticized. Fellow astronomer and Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) host Carl Sagan was an early and vocal opponent of Hynek. During a debate between the two in 1975, Sagan responded to a question by Hynek comparing the theories of ufologists like himself to Sagan’s own controversial idea of the star map by stating, “A lot of the pseudo-science that I talked about before has this one advantage of it. A minimal intellectual effort is necessary to understand it.”
These are but two brief examples of Hynek’s reach and legacy, and are illustrative of how incredible his life really was. Any attempt at telling the story of J. Allen Hynek will be fantastic in every sense of the word by virtue of the long shadow he cast. So, where does the History Channel’s version go wrong?
“I watched the first episode of Project Blue Book,” wrote Dr. David Jacobs via email. Jacobs is the founder of the International Center for Alien Abduction and author of The UFO Controversy in America (1975), for which Hynek wrote the foreword. His assessment of Project Blue Book was blunt: “It was totally fictional with almost nothing related to the actual Project Blue Book and to Allen Hynek. It is apparent that they did not do any research into Blue Book or the earlier projects Sign and Grudge.”
The sin of Project Blue Book is that it takes an extraordinary life and turns it into something ordinary, another in a long line of paranoid thrillers in the vein of The X-Files (1993) and The Americans (2013). It makes the unbelievable circumstances of Hynek’s time on the real-life Air Force study Project Blue Book even more far-fetched by branching out into the realm of conspiracy theories. And it reduces a curious scientist into a fame-seeking magician. The rub of it is that in doing so, it also creates the most accurate depiction of our current national psychosis. Project Blue Book is a brain-sucking worm lodged in the zombified skull of America, incessantly jamming the fear button in what’s left of our parasite-eaten gray matter to provoke us into shadowboxing hallucinations of the Deep State and Russian spies.
THE CLOSER ENCOUNTERS MAN
In 2017, screenwriter Mark O’Connell wrote The Close Encounters Man, a biography of J. Allen Hynek spanning his entire career and transition from respected astronomer to marginalized ufologist. He was first attracted to the subject of Hynek in the course of doing research for his personal blog, “High Strangeness UFO,” and a conversation with Mark Rodigher, the scientific director of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). Hynek founded CUFOS in 1973 in response to the Air Force shuttering Project Blue Book. Along with the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), it was among a number of organizations created in the late sixties and early seventies in an attempt to establish ufology as a legitimate field of study in the sciences.
Both O’Connell and CUFOS felt it important that Hynek’s story avoid sensationalism. Tabloids and blogs covering his research in the past had already done that, so CUFOS granted O’Connell unrestricted access to Hynek’s writing hoping the writer would offer something more substantial. “There were two qualities about Dr. Hynek that really appealed to me,” O’Connell said during a phone interview. “One was the fact that there had been quite a bit written about him but nobody had considered his career as an astronomer, and I decided it would make a much more interesting story if I looked at his career as a UFO research and as an astronomer to try and learn how those two careers informed each other.”
This isn’t entirely accurate, depending on whom you’re willing to believe. Some have tried to grapple with the question of Hynek’s time as a “real” scientist. Hynek’s colleague Jacques Vallee wrote in the first volume of his personal journals, The Forbidden Science: Journals 1957-1969 (1996), that Hynek had confided in him that his interest in science stemmed from a desire to explore “the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain.” Vallee, allegedly quoting Hynek, drew connections between his interest in science and an interest in the occult — the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, etc. Hynek was on a constant search for the unexplainable and he was willing to look outside conventional modes of thinking to get what he was after. This willingness to abandon “respectability” informed the second quality O’Connell found appealing about Hynek. “The other thing I wanted to look at,” he said, “was this whole mythology that’s been built up around Hynek, that he’s somehow a traitor to the cause and a phony because he changed his mind about UFOs. Everybody knows he changed his mind on the subject but nobody really knows how or why that happened.”
The truth of Hynek’s life is that it was more interesting than any TV show could ever translate to the screen. Whether loved by his fans or ridiculed by UFO debunkers, he was always motivated to keep looking for answers, whatever they may be. According to O’Connell, “He was driven by a desire to understand a mysterious phenomenon. He loved the mystery of [UFOs], and it provided him with the biggest mystery he ever faced in his life. He spent the greater part of his life trying to understand what this phenomenon was and what it meant. He knew he was setting himself up for ridicule and disrespect among his professional colleagues, but he just didn’t care.”
That journey began in 1948 when Hynek agreed to join Project Sign as a scientific consultant. During his time on Sign, Hynek analyzed 244 incidents and found that most were naturally occurring phenomena or did not yield enough evidence to make any kind of fact-based determination. However, 20 percent of the incidents provided evidence of something occurring but were still unexplained. This didn’t immediately raise concern for Hynek. “The additional 20 percent were things he thought could be explained with more time or resources,” said O’Connell.
Hynek continued pursuing the question of UFOs on Project Grudge, in 1949, and, finally, Project Blue Book, in 1952. Across all three projects, Hynek began noticing similarities — one number in particular kept popping back up. “He was surprised to find that there was a consistent 20 percent of cases that could not be explained,” O’Connell observed. “That pattern, that consistent 20 percent of unexplained cases, is what got under his skin and convinced him there might be something more to it.”
As Hynek’s belief in the possibility of alien life grew he found himself increasingly at odds with the military. In 1953, he joined the Robertson Panel — a committee formed at the suggestion of the CIA to study the veracity of claims of UFO sightings — as an associate member, but he immediately became wary of the committee’s goals. Of his experience on the panel, Hynek told writer Robert Emenegger in his book UFOs: Past, Present, and Future (1974), “I did not feel at all like a colleague of the panel, but rather as one of the witnesses brought in for certain evidence or comments, and then dismissed as a witness would be when he’s asked to step down from the chair.” Moments like this contributed to Hynek’s increasing skepticism of government involvement in UFO research, but he soldiered on as he felt the resources and exposure provided by these studies and committees presented opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise been available. Concurrently, stories began appearing in newspapers and magazines and on TV news programs chronicling America’s own growing obsession with UFOs, and Hynek was often at the center of press coverage. His name became closely associated with Project Blue Book in the mind of most Americans. Never more so than in 1966.
It was on March 25, 1966, that Hynek released the infamous “swamp gas” theory to reporters during a press conference at Selfridge Air Force Base, in Michigan. He intended to explain only some of the nearly 100 sightings stretching between Dexter, Michigan, and Hillsdale College. But that’s not what happened. A report of the press conference filed by the Detroit Free Press the following day stated that Hynek said “rotten vegetation produces swamp gas which ‘can be trapped by ice and winter conditions,’ then suddenly released ‘in some ground quantity’ when the ground thaws.” In his words, the flame produced from this release would explain the supernatural aura seen by witnesses, but that this explanation was only valid in these specific cases and should not discount any other sightings throughout the state. Unfortunately, journalists pounced on the opportunity to mock both Hynek’s explanation and locals for believing in UFOs. On March 29, 1966, for example, The Washington State Journal published an editorial titled “Swamp Gas?–A Smelly Explanation for Flying Saucers” attacking the entire ordeal as a distraction from a rising cost of living, conflicts in Southeast Asia, and political turmoil domestically.
The rushed response by the Air Force to discredit the sightings in Michigan and the press corp’s public derision cemented Hynek’s belief that there needed to be independent groups studying the problem. “It wasn’t until 1966 and the famous swamp gas case that he really came to the end of [his transition],” stated O’Connell, “and he said, ‘I’m no longer interested in just giving out cover stories to please the Air Force.’ He decided to treat it as a legitimate scientific problem and study it that way.” Hynek began writing prodigiously on the subject, calling for greater resources and respect for the field of ufology. He penned a letter later that year for Science magazine stating that UFOs were a legitimate subject of research and followed with similar articles in The New Yorker and Playboy.
The Air Force disagreed with Hynek’s belief in Project Blue Book and ordered the program terminated in December 1969. Hynek responded by releasing The UFO Experience in 1972 and forming CUFOS a year later. He spent the remaining years of his life researching UFOs, giving lectures and proselytizing on the subject, and sparring with critics like Sagan (and, eventually, friends like Vallee). Through it all, one thing never changed — his search for answers. “He steadfastly believed that if he studied the phenomenon long enough and built up some credibility, that he might sway the minds of some of his fellow scientists,” said O’Connell.
HISTORY, OR SOMETHING ELSE
Project Blue Book the series is nothing like Project Blue Book the Air Force study, but you probably already guessed that. It’s a TV show! That requires we grant it some creative license. Plus, it’s on History! That means we should expect (lots of) hyperbole. But what happens when the show’s goals are at odds with the reality of its subject’s life and research?
“Hynek looking at vats of aliens was not his bag,” explained Kate Dorsch, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Dorsch’s dissertation “Reliable Witnesses, Crackpot Science: The UFO in Cold War America, 1947-1977” focuses on Projects Sign, Grudge, and Blue Book in an attempt to understand how the United States Air Force interacted with the public on the subject of UFOs. That Project Blue Book includes moments like this and has Hynek working to counter conspiracies by both the Americans and the Russians feeds into a vision of UFO researchers Hynek actively opposed. As Dorsch explains, “This X-Files-y stuff was never Hynek’s thing. He toyed around with it with the Playboy article and a little bit in The UFO Experience, where he was trying to come up with a scientific equation to account for strangeness, which was bizarre, but it was an attempt by Hynek to continue to try and scientize this thing.”
Mark O’Connell agrees. “There’s a moment in the first episode that crystallizes my feelings [about the show],” he said, “when the character of Dr. Hynek is explaining to the character of his wife why he’s accepted this job offer from the Air Force to investigate UFO sightings. He says he can continue teaching at Ohio State University and it would be good extra money, both of which were true, but then he gets very dramatic and says, ‘I want the recognition.’ That is so completely wrong, it’s the opposite of Dr. Hynek’s true character. He did not care about recognition or fame.”
What Project Blue Book doesn’t do well is translating the life of Dr. J Allen Hynek to a public that mostly misunderstands his work. The most glaring omission, not so surprisingly, is Hynek’s own ability to translate complex ideas to people who misunderstood his work. On the show, he frequently throws out scientific jargon and speaks over the heads of those he’s talking at. This is in direct contrast to Hynek, the Man. Both Dorsch and O’Connell spoke up The UFO Experience because of Hynek’s ability to communicate ideas for non-science audiences. Dorsch especially offered praise, stating, “It’s incredible from a science communication perspective. The way he manages to write a book that is super easy to understand to the average layperson but still communicates expertise, is incredible.”
Project Blue Book also falls short as a creative work examining the Cold War. It checks all the required boxes — the suffocating paranoia of nuclear armageddon, the soul-crushing ennui of middle-class life — but it also doesn’t move beyond those things to do anything more with the era. No, where Project Blue Book succeeds is in documenting and chronicling America circa 2019. It’s a mirror reflecting our current anxieties and fears, filtered through the zeitgeist of this era and its attendant social mores. Gay panic! Evil Russians! It leaves no stone unturned in trying to cover every subject in a way that appeals to every possible group, so on one hand you have those evil Russians trying to steal state secrets and possibly seduce scientists’ wives in steamy lesbian trysts, but on the other you also have the State creating ever more unnecessary secrets as it murders its citizens to prevent other, semi-related secrets from leaking. This might be the only show on television courting Resistance liberals while at the same time nodding along to Deep State conspiracies peddled by the grifters signal-boosting QAnon.
Unfortunately, that also means it betrays the work of its main character. Any attempt at exploring the origins of the UFO mythology collapses under the weight of conspiracy plots and action set pieces. Hynek’s desire to probe the limitations of science and his ability to communicate complex ideas to laypersons are absent in this retelling. What’s left is a fun distraction, a trashy pulp serial that drops The Americans into Groom Lake, but one that is indistinguishable from other conspiracy-fueled fever dreams already on cable and Netflix. It doesn’t contain the novelty of Black Mirror (2011) or the nostalgia of the X-Files retreads. Instead, it’s got two guys chasing owls in the fifties.