Project Blue Book was a program created by the U.S. Air Force to study the phenomenon of Unidentified Flying Objects, and it was run by a civilian astrophysicist, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. The mini-series focuses on Hynek and an Air Force officer who assists him. and is about what happens when Hynek begins to suspect that he is being used by the government.
I mention this all for a very specific reason. It's not that I'm especially interested in UFO's. Rather, that when I was at Northwestern, I took.an astronomy course, "Highlights of Astronomy" which was taught by an eminent professor there -- J. Allen Hynek!
(I will bet cash money that after I post this, people will come out of the woodwork and write that they too had Dr. Hynek's class at Northwestern. It was that popular. People took the class. Lots of them, for many years. And it was very good, too. UPDATE: I've already won the bet -- someone who read this who took the class corrected me with the proper name. In the first draft, I called it "Introduction to Astronomy." And I've heard from another, as well, within the first couple hours, so we're up to two so far.)
At this point, it should not be shocking to know that I really don't remember all that many details about the class after the passage of years, other than I enjoyed it. He was a wildly-knowledgeable fellow and a great communicator who could get erudite things across on a popular level. But I still do remember three details from the class that came during his (of course...) UFO lectures --
One is that Hynek said that after a while the Air Force very much wanted to close down Project Blue Book, but they had a problem. By regulation, they were not allowed to shut it down until every case was classified. And there were about 30 files that could not be explained. The cases weren't proof of UFOs, but the project hadn't come up with anything that could account for them. So, what the Air Force did was that they classified these 30 cases as "unidentified" -- and then could close down the program. And did.
The second thing I recall is that Hynek said when he realized the Air Force was going to be shutting down the program, he was concerned that the papers would be buried, so little by little every day he made copies and sneaked them out, so that he would have a set of everything. While it's possible that this mini-s production is based on those papers, I believe I read on the site that a few years ago everything for Project Blue Book was declassified, so it's likely based more on that.
And the third detail from the class I remember is that Hynek made clear that while he didn't believe there was proof of UFOs, he felt there was too much that was unexplained, and that it was foolish of us to think that in the mass vastness of the universe we were the only planet with living creatures. To show have massive the universe was, he used a "visual aid" of sorts. I don't remember exactly what it was he specifically demonstrated, but he had a roll of paper by his desk at the bottom of the raked auditorium of probably 40 rows going up 150 feet. And he had a student take an end of the paper and walk it up to the top of the last row, as the paper unrolled, then walked it across the back row and all the way down to the desk at the bottom. And one inch represented something like a million miles -- and the distance of all the unrolled paper represented something like the distance from Earth to Mars, which was the shortest distance from us to another planet. He then put that in context of the other planets in our solar system, and then other solar systems and on and on...
The Project Blue Book mini-series begins on the History Channel next week, on Tuesday, January 8, and I think the second part runs the week after. You could check out the website for the production here, which is filled with lots of articles and videos on the mini-series and its background and the science of it all. There's also a specific article about Dr. Hynek himself here, if you'd rather just read that.
This is how they describe the plot of film --
"Dr. J. Allen Hynek (played by Aidan Gillen), a brilliant yet underappreciated college professor, is recruited by the U.S. Air Force to spearhead a clandestine operation called Project Blue Book. Along with his partner, the debonair Air Force Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), he is summoned to investigate UFO sightings around the country and use science to discover what really happened. However, when some encounters cannot be explained away and cases remain open, Hynek begins to suspect that he has been duped by the government into a larger conspiracy to cover up the truth. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and rising Atomic Era, each episode will draw from the actual Project Blue Book case files, blending UFO theories with authentic historical events from one of the most mysterious eras in United States history."
And here's the trailer --
I really can't wait for this. It is so bizarre to think about watching a TV mini-series about a college professor you had. But he was quite a renowned fellow. In fact, he was the technical adviser on Steven Spielberg's movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And not just the technical adviser, but that very title, famous as it now is, was a phrase coined by Hynek himself in his writings, breaking down what the different levels of encounters are. Furthermore, Spielberg gave Dr. Hynek a cameo in the movie. And it's such an intentionally-focused, prominent cameo -- not just a random body stuck in a crowd scene -- that decades after the movie was released, I'd describe the moment to people (and still do) and they remember it, because it stood out so much...and because Hynek really looked like a classic astronomer from Central Casting.
(The scene comes during the big, final sequence when all the scientists have gathered in a semi-circle, and the UFO has appeared. The door opens, and an alien being steps out. There is then a huge close-up of one of the astronomers with a pointed goatee who steps forward from the crowd, takes his pipe out of his mouth and gets a closer look, as he fills the screen. That was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, and Spielberg's homage to him.)
Here's a very nice, short featurette on Close Encounters and Hynek's importance to it. You'll see that Close Encounters cameo footage of him, and Spielberg and cast members talk about the good fellow. One note: at one point, actor Bob Balaban refers to him as Dr. Allen J. Hynek. It's not, it's J. Allen Hynek.
As I said, I can't wait.