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.


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.


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.

Looking Back: 40 Years of Space Travel

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy exclaimed “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

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 JFK’s “Moon speech” given at Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962

His speech became reality when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Lander and uttered the now well-known phrase “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The journey to the Moon was a culmination of years of work. Several previous missions had launched satellites and probes into space, as well as manned flights and space walks. On October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite to ever orbit the earth. That same year, Russia launched the first animal, a dog named Laika, into orbit.

On April 12, 1961, Russia successfully sent the first human into outer space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth for 108 minutes. In 1965, the Russians also completed the first spacewalk.

Not to be outdone by Russia in the heart of the Cold War, the U.S. decided to send a man to the moon. On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin (Buzz), and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center on the shuttle Apollo 11. Four days later, the lunar module separated from the command module and became the first manned spacecraft to land on the surface of the moon.

Hubble's Largest Galaxy Portrait Offers a new High-Def view
Creative Commons License photo credit: Venom82

Since then, we have landed vehicles on Mars. We have sent satellites and probes to observe all of the planets in our solar system as well as our Sun. We have used the Hubble Telescope to capture images of suns and galaxies millions of light years away. We have a space station where astronauts can live in space for months at a time.

It’s been an amazing journey – and there is still so much left to discover. Interested in learning more about the history – and the future – of space travel? Come see Dawn of the Space Age, a new planetarium show on the Apollo space missions, the Space Race, and expected NASA exploration.

Learn a few more fun facts about Apollo 11’s mission.

Looking Back…Christmas Edition

In the past when I have written these “Looking Back” posts, they have always been science-oriented. However, not much science has apparently happened in recorded history on this day, perhaps because so many people take this day off to spend it with their family and loved ones. So I thought I would share a few historical events that occurred on Christmas Day that spread the message of hope and peace (and one science event because I really just can’t resist.)

World Wide Web
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bull3t

On Christmas Day of 1990 (you get your science fact first today) developers executed the first successful trial run of the system that would later become the World Wide Web, including an early web browser, the first web server, and the first web pages, which described the project. The web went public on August 6, 1991 – less than a year later. Less than 20 years later, we have billions of websites on every topic imaginable, and most youths can’t imagine their lives without the internet superhighway.

And now for the history…

On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the President of the Soviet Union. The very next day Ukraine left the Soviet Union, and the Union “collapsed.” This ended the Cold War that had existed between the US and the Soviet Union since the mid 1940s.

On Christmas Day, 1977, Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin met with Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, to discuss a peace treaty between their two countries. The two neighboring states had been fighting on and off since the formation of Israel in 1948. On March 26, 1979 the two countries announced a peace treaty that still exists today. The two leaders also received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ninetta mia crepare di maggio ci vuole tanto troppo coraggio
Creative Commons License photo credit: khyes

On Christmas Day, 1914, German and British troops on the Western Front of World War I called a temporary cease-fire. Against the orders of their superiors, all artillery fire stopped along the line. The truce had started in some places the night before, as German troops began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols in German. The Scottish troops across the battlefield responded by singing carols in English. Soon, troops began to leave the trenches and to socialize in the area between the two sides, exchanging drinks and cigars. In one area, the troops met outside the trenches and began a game of soccer (it is rumored the Germans won 3-2.) In some places along the lines the fighting resumed the next day, but in others the truce lasted until after the New Year. Although the war saw three more Christmases, no widespread cease-fires were ever called again.

Happy holidays!