Son of ‘Bridge of Spies’ pilot to deliver father’s story at HMNS Wednesday

When it comes to American espionage, few people are as close to the truth as Francis Gary Powers, Jr., and fewer have a story to tell as exciting as his father’s — one that inspired director Steven Spielberg to make a movie out of it. Bridge of Spies (2015) tells the declassified tale of New York lawyer James Donovan, who brokered the international prisoner exchange that brought home American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, Sr. The narrative lives on through Powers’s son, who will tell his own story of historical preservation Wednesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

bridge of spies

May 1, 1960, during the height of the Cold War, Powers, Sr. was shot down over Russia during a spy mission to take photos of the ground from an altitude of 70,000 feet. Using specialized camera equipment, Powers’s plane gathered information on ground movements from 13.25 miles above the Earth’s surface, more than twice the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner.

Powers’s U-2 was damaged by an SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, which exploded near the tail section, breaking off a portion of the tail. The plane disintegrated as it fell through the atmosphere, tearing off both wings. According to his son, Powers never ejected but still survived the crash, and the middle of the aircraft remained nearly intact, leaving advanced technology available for Russian engineers to investigate.

Francis Gary Powers, Sr.

Francis Gary Powers, Sr., in the specialized pressure suit that allows U-2 pilots to survive at 70,000 feet.

Powers pulled himself from the wreckage and was later captured by the Russian military and detained in a Soviet prison for two years. In the media and history books, his capture and brokerage back to the United States became known as the U-2 Incident of May 1960.

At this point, Powers’s story grows muddled in rumor and conspiracy theory, which his son has passionately and patiently resisted for decades through his work with the public. Many Americans considered Powers as a traitor, believing he should have taken his own life to preserve U.S. secrets and that perhaps his return home meant military secrets had been exchanged.

U2_Powers_Senate_model

Powers, Sr. used this model to explain in legal hearings how the aircraft broke up as it fell to the ground.

“It’s never too late to set the record straight,” Powers, Jr. told the Houston Rotary Club at a special luncheon Tuesday, where he delivered his story as a guest speaker. He explained that the U-2 Incident happened when he was a child living in California, but he was old enough to understand his father’s POW status.

Later in life, after his father published his 1970 memoir, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, Powers, Jr. became instrumental to the preservation of the U-2 Incident and Cold War espionage. His father died in a tragic news helicopter accident in 1977, and after many years of mourning, Powers, Jr. picked up the torch.

overflight

With the help of John C. Welch, Powers, Jr. founded The Cold War Museum in 1996. Inspired by decades of research into declassified documents, his father’s memoir and personal experience, he first established the museum as a traveling collection with the preservation of truth in mind. Over the years, the museum traveled around the world to build interest in the creation of a permanent home, and in 2009, Powers, Jr. announced a physical address in Vint Hill, Va. He currently resides in Richmond.

For 15 years, Powers, Jr. pitched his father’s story to the film industry to further build interest in the museum, the memoir and the U-2 Incident. In July 2014, Steven Spielberg requested to option Powers’s book for Bridge of Spies, released last October. The movie stars Tom Hanks as Donovan.

Powers, Jr. will deliver a lecture Wednesday in the Wortham Giant Screen Theater at HMNS. He will discuss the U-2 Incident, the history of Cold War espionage and his experience establishing The Cold War Museum and serving as a technical consultant for Bridge of Spies. Tickets available online or at the box office.

Don’t miss our temporary espionage exhibit Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, open through next Monday, Jan. 18. Learn the secrets of spies before they disappear!

Still interested in espionage and counter-terrorism? Come back next week for a second spies lecture titled Terrorism, ISIS, and Emerging Threats — Evolution of Terrorism StrategyWednesday, Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham.

Inside Discovery Guides: Why you should consider a museum tour with a concierge

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

The Houston Museum of Natural Science started small. Back in 1909, when the museum was founded, you could probably see everything we had to offer in 30 minutes. But since our opening, HMNS has been growing exponentially. These days, our main campus is the heart of an international network, bringing exhibits and lecturers from places like England, Egypt, Italy, and China. To see everything here would take at least two days, and that figure doesn’t even account for all there is to see at our Sugar Land campus or the George Observatory. Trying to decide what to do can be overwhelming for guests, but luckily, our staff has evolved alongside our institution.

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Concierge Rigoberto Torres enjoys being the first to greet visitors to the museum, he said. “Once they come inside, we want to make sure their experience is good from the start.” Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The concierge service here at HMNS is like a mini travel agency whose services are free. All you have to do is walk up to the information desk, tell us what you’re interested in and listen to suggestions. It may seem like overkill, having staff just to explain what there is to see here, but consider this: our main campus covers four city blocks and contains 12 permanent exhibits and an ever-changing number of limited engagements visiting from all over the world. We also host a lecture series, adult education classes, multiple children’s education programs and much more. We have really interesting stuff, but it’s surprisingly easy to miss out.

Some visitors see the concierges standing at the information desk or sometimes patrolling the exhibits, and they don’t know what to think. Who are these people dressed in white shirts and black pants? They may look somewhat like used car salesmen, but they really aren’t here to sell anything. They’re here to help. Some members of the team have been with the museum for years, and they know the ins and outs of every department, so they can answer questions about membership, ticket sales, upcoming exhibits, you name it.

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Concierge Rich Hutting explains to visitors Jullie Fugitt and Roy Hey why this Uintatherium might have looked so strange. She developed many different adaptations all at once. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

Some of the concierges, called Discovery Guides, offer tours of the exhibits. Every day, the Discovery Guides take groups through our two most popular exhibits, the Morian Hall of Paleontology and the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Each guide has spent countless hours studying the objects housed in our collections. The little plaques in the exhibits give interesting information, but the juicy details, the romance and intrigue, the struggle for life and limb… those you can only hear on the tours.

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Corey Green explains illness in Ancient Egypt to a tour group of children. Egyptians used makeup to prevent flies from getting into their eyes, she said. Even men. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

Discovery Guides give interactive kid’s tours, too, where the children get to touch real fossils. On these special tours, the guides manage to explain what fossils are and where they come from without sounding like an audio version of paleontology textbook, so children and adults alike can walk away with a real understanding of the things in our exhibits.

The concierge team is blazing a trail toward providing better service to all who visit us at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Already, letters have come in calling us sweet and helpful, giving every guest the best experience possible. We are proud to offer a service not found in most other museums. A service that ensures there will be none of those awkward family photos where everybody looks tired and confused. Not when they’re at HMNS.

Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris Wells is a Discovery Guide at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Examining the Aftermath of Hurricane Ike

Today’s guest blogger is Bryan Carlile, an environmental cartographer and photographer. Bryan will join a panel of experts at HMNS on Jan 21 at 6 p.m. to discuss the threats that affect our Texas Gulf Coast. In the article below, Bryan discusses his interest in geospatial technologies and how he was involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

Growing up, while kids around me pretended to be soldiers and football stars, I was recreating the great adventures of discovery in my backyard.  I imagined myself as a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, discovering new worlds and mapping virgin territories.  Nothing has ever been as fascinating or exciting to me as the natural world.  I grew up with this obsessive passion for science, never knowing that it could become a profession.  I did not believe it was possible to make a career out of studying maps, weather patterns and taking pictures of the animals and landscapes that enthralled me.  After all, who gets to list ‘fun’ in their job description when they’re grown up?

As a geospatial technologies consultant my life is full of doing what I love.  I find myself at the center of modern technology, focused on both ancient and developing patterns of our incredible planet Earth.  Every day I combine geographic, temporal and spatial information to assist in the planning, decision-making and operational needs of many types of organizations.  I create everything from aerial maps of potential corporate sites to defined pollution boundaries for state and local agencies.  I am regularly involved in archeology, biology, cartography, ecology, forestry, geology, hydrology and real estate.

Working in Texas definitely keeps me busy.  Because it is such an enormous state, it encompasses many environments and endless potential.  Settled in Houston, I can study urban sprawl, the plains of the Hill Country and the fascinating Gulf Coast.  In 2008, when the coast was hit by the monumental hurricane named Ike, I was called upon as a first responder.  I boarded a helicopter and traveled to Galveston, prepared to assist when nature had dealt one of its worst blows.

As I hovered in the Galveston sky, searching for survivors and emergencies to report, I realized the gravity of what had occurred.  Nature left me awestruck.  I knew very few aircraft were allowed in this area, particularly not press helicopters, and because of this the average Texan would never know how hard their homeland was hit.  It felt important to me to capture this moment as a witness to the power of natural disasters and with the hope that maybe scientists could study these images to learn a little bit more about how the natural world works.  For the next several days my time on the helicopter was spent concentrating on obtaining the best aerial photographs I could.  Aerial photography has always been a hobby of mine and there was no better time to put my skills to good use.

Educating ourselves about nature and natural disasters is one of the most important things humans can do.  Our planet is a precious resource and the more we learn about the way it works the more we can do to keep it healthy and happy.  My next adventure suddenly seemed obvious: What better way to learn about these images than to present them to oceanographers, photographers and natural scientists?  Better yet, what if their findings could be discussed among not only each other, but residents of the area that was so affected?

Thursday, Jan. 21 at HMNS, an assembled team from across the country will join together to assess the impact of Hurricane Ike as well as the fragile state of our unique and wonderful ecosystem.  The panel is composed of experts that can educate all of us about the Texas Gulf Coast and the effect of such a historically strong storm.  Beside me will sit environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, Oceanography professor John B. Anderson, former director of Texas Parks & Wildlife Andrew Sansom, and the former chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Coastal Geology Abby Sallenger.  I have no doubt that I will learn as much as I can teach at this symposium, and my hope is for interested and concerned Houstonians to join us.  Let’s educate ourselves about the Texas Gulf Coast.  I’d love to see you there.

Come check out our symposium on the Texas Coast at HMNS on Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. Make sure that while you are here on Jan 21. you sign up to win an aerial tour of Galveston by helicopter.

Towards Other Earths [Lecture]

McDonald Observatory
McDonald Observatory
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nick Shine

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Fritz Benedict. He is a Senior Research Scientist at UT-Austin’s McDonald Observatory in west Texas. He is also involved with NASA and is currently attending the Towards Other Earths conference in Portugal. Dr. Benedict will be giving a lecture at HMNS on October 27, at 6:30 p.m.

Hello from Portugal, where it is raining; water from the sky, and exciting new developments in the area of extrasolar planets.

All of this week, experts from around the world are sharing ideas and results about planets tens to hundreds of light years away. It is absolutely amazing how much we can determine about exoplanets: mass, size, composition of atmosphere, temperature and density.

Planet Sunset
Creative Commons License photo credit: kevindooley

But, these are all gas giants (like Jupiter) or even larger. The holy grail in this game is a planet that is very similar to Earth; a place with a surface gravity, atmosphere, and oceans like we enjoy. So, this conference (called Towards Other Earths) has a reason to exist. What will be required to find and characterize an earth-like planet tens of light years distant?

Next week I will be in your neighborhood on 27 October, giving a talk at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and will report on a few of the fascinating results from Towards Other Earths. Hope to see you all there!

Make sure you join us at the George Observatory for Astronomy Day on October 24. Visitors will be able to participate in crafts, activities, lectures and astronomy exhibits, all free with the price of admission to Brazos Bend State Park.