When Project Blue Book—the largest single compilation of data relating to Unidentified Flying Objects—was declassified by the Air Force on July 5, one of the first civilian investigators to dig into the mountain of evidence was Northwestern University astronomy professor J. Allen Hynek, 66. Project Blue Book consists of 140,000 pages of reports concerning some 12,600 UFO sightings between 1947 and 1969, the year the Air Force decided to end its investigation. For 21 years beginning in 1948, Dr. Hynek served as official astronomical consultant to the project. A former director of Ohio State University’s McMillin Observatory and associate director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Hynek resigned as head of Northwestern’s astronomy department two years ago to establish his own Center for UFO Studies in Evanston, Ill. It will publish an international newsletter starting this fall. Regarded as perhaps the world’s leading expert on UFOs, Hynek discussed the controversial issue with Linda Witt of PEOPLE.
Do you discount all UFO sightings as optical illusions?
No, confound it! There is so much nuts-and-bolts evidence. How do you explain things you can see on radar? How do you explain imprints on the ground? How do you explain something that comes along and tears off the tops of trees? Or, as once happened in the Soviet Union, razes thousands of acres of forest? How do you explain bullets ricocheting off whatever was in the sky?
Are there any surprises in the recently released Air Force data?
It’s going to make some juicy reading, that’s for sure. The Air Force couldn’t explain more than 700 of the 12,600 cases. Some of the most intriguing are those the Air Force claims it had identified but actually hadn’t.
Why is this material being declassified now?
No one seems to be certain, but one clue may be the Freedom of Information Act. Literally dozens of requests for UFO information were filed under the law’s provisions. That may have put sufficient pressure on the Pentagon to release it.
Why was it classified for so long?
To put it bluntly, the Air Force was under orders from the Pentagon to debunk UFOs. Project Blue Book should have been called Project Debunk. The attempt was a failure, and one reason the Air Force classified the material was to cover its mistakes.
What sort of mistakes?
One object, for example, was spotted that stopped in midair, hovered, made an abrupt 90° turn and flew out of sight. This was listed originally as a “probable” or “possible” weather balloon. Then when the statistics were actually compiled, the words “probable” and “possible” were dropped. Air Force Maj. Hector Quintanilla, who was working on the project, defended this by saying, “There’s no such thing as a ‘probable balloon.’ ”
What else do you find misleading about the Air Force approach?
They talk about mirages, but the cases they call mirages would have been physically impossible that high in the sky. Eight of some 30 cases in late August 1962 are listed as “insufficient information,” but then there was no attempt to go out and get sufficient information. In the Blue Book, those cases would be listed as solved—solved because of insufficient data.
Why did the Air Force want to debunk UFOs?
In July 1952 the CIA called a committee of scientists to look into the hundreds of UFO reports. I was part of that committee. We were told in so many words that the CIA wanted to get rid of the stuff. They were worried that if someone wanted to pull another Pearl Harbor, they could get their agents here to jam the military wires with false UFO reports. That way the Air Force couldn’t tell an ICBM from a hole in the wall. The panel of scientists looked at a few selected cases supplied by the Air Force and decided UFOs were just a case of mass hysteria. They recommended that the subject should be discredited, and even suggested getting Walt Disney to put together an educational film debunking it.
Why did the Air Force stop studying UFOs?
They were charged with determining whether UFOs posed a threat to national security, and by 1969—when the project ended—the Air Force was pretty well convinced they didn’t.
What kind of people see UFOs?
One of the things coming out of Project Blue Book is the astonishing cross section of Americans who reported UFOs. It turns out that cab drivers, housewives and policemen were as reliable as technically trained people. A pilot can be just as mistaken about a comet or the planet Venus or a fireball as a kindergarten teacher. Pilots, for instance, have swerved jetliners and tossed passengers around thinking they were on a collision course with meteors that weren’t there. Then the broken ribs were blamed on “unexpected turbulence.”
How many UFOs are sighted?
There are about 100 sightings worldwide in any given 24-hour period. A Gallup poll two years ago indicated that UFO sightings had doubled since 1968. An astonishing 11 percent of the adult population—or more than 15 million Americans—reported seeing UFOs. In fact, probably two to three million of these were valid UFOs—objects we have no explanations for.
What is the wildest story you’ve encountered?
On Oct. 15, 1957 a Brazilian farmer named Antonio Villas-Bogas claimed he was abducted at about 1 a.m. by five uniformed persons ranging in height from five to six feet, was taken aboard some ship and put into a room with the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The woman communicated with him in sign language, and, to skip the sensational parts, there may be an intergalactic baby out there someplace. What was really interesting was that he was found to have radiation sickness. That is what excited UFOlogists.
What do you think of people who claim to have boarded spaceships?
Frankly, I quite strenuously avoid them. I’m almost embarrassed by the reports. None of those people have ever been able to produce anything reliable. It’s junk, just junk! But I’ve been present when two very reliable people—a social worker and a postman—underwent hypnosis, and they were still convinced these things had happened to them.
Do you think UFOs could be visitors from outer space?
It doesn’t seem possible, but who knows? As an astronomer I know that the distances involved are so great they’d have to have a technology beyond our comprehension. But then, Ben Franklin would probably have a tough time comprehending the 747.
What do you think they are?
People get excited at the thought UFOs might be from outer space. But it would be just as exciting if UFOs were from inner space, from an alternate or parallel reality.
What do you mean by “parallel reality”?
Physical reality comes to us through our five physical senses or instruments which extend those senses. But suppose through expanded consciousness we were able to come into contact with a parallel reality? To a person born blind, a sunset is a parallel reality; it exists, yet he cannot perceive it. Add one sense and he perceives it. It’s a little like trying to convince the residents of a tropical island that there is snow.
But as a scientist can you accept the possible existence of such a parallel reality?
We know there are a great many spaces within the atom—spaces we can begin to see with an electron microscope. These spaces are as vast, relatively, as those between the stars in the solar system. It’s altogether possible that an entire parallel universe exists in these spaces between the parts of an atom. I know I’m on dangerous ground here. But if the sheer weight of evidence finally forces us to look into parallel realities, inner space, expanded consciousness, then we’ll have to.
How important is it that we solve the mystery of UFOs?
When the solution to the UFO puzzle comes, I think it will prove not to be just a step in the march of science. It will be a mighty and unexpected quantum jump.