Interview With Charles Justiz

A graduate of the of the United States Air Force Academy and a former United States Air Force Officer, Charles Justiz has logged over 16,000 hours on over 100 different types of aircraft during his career. Prior to his retirement from NASA in 2010, Dr. Justiz developed the Crew Resource Management program for NASA aviators, managed a program for developing an on-board landing simulation system for space shuttle pilots and served as the Chief of Aviation Safety. Dr. Justiz holds a doctorate degree from the University of Houston for his research in Thermo Physics and Plasma Dynamics, an adjunct associate professorship at the University of Houston in aerospace engineering and is a NASA Doctoral Fellow. He currently works as a corporate aviation consultant and lives in Seabrook, Texas, with his wife, Dayna Steele, author of Rock to the Top: What I Learned about Success from the World’s Greatest Rock Stars and three sons.

  1. How important is it for a science fiction novel to have plausible science? 

Most Sci-Fi writers don’t write to talk about science. They use the different Sci-Fi scenarios and situations to reflect on human interactions and the human condition. However, for me the science has to be exactly right. One of the most important things for me as a reader is that the author has to coddle my suspension of disbelief. It is a novel, after all – by definition, a work of fiction. The best authors draw you into their world. For Fantasy, the parameters are much wider, but they are still there. Fantasy writers have to stay internally consistent to their worlds. Hard science fiction fans expect the science to be consistent with our current understanding of our physical world. The fun thing that many people don’t understand is that the “absolutes” we hold true today aren’t absolute at all. I like gray areas in science where people don’t understand the assumptions and boundary conditions of these “absolutes” and the exciting things implied by searching outside of these artificial constraints. It gets exciting. But if I were to ever write outside of the boundaries of hard science, I wouldn’t be true to my chosen genre and my readers would call me on it for writing a physical inconsistency into the plot and forcing their suspension of disbelief. I’ve had some wonderful and spirited discussions with my fans on the minute details of the science in my works. I am blessed with some uber-geek fans that show no reticence or mercy. They keep me honest and on my toes.

2.       Does being a NASA pilot mean you flew planes that carried and/or escorted the space shuttle?

Yup. Charles is flying one of those.

I was a  NASA research pilot for thirty years. The job of the research pilot is to fly the research aircraft. These aircraft, either due to the mission or their extensive modifications, are considered to have reduced safety margins when compared to a typical airliner, corporate jet, or fighter. Consequently, I ended up flying aircraft that required a pressure suit and flew twice as high as your typical airliner. I flew aircraft that went many times the speed of sound. Numerous times, I chased the Space Shuttle out of orbit. I was one of the few pilots in the world (there’s actually only two of us) that was fortunate enough to chase the Space Shuttle out of orbit with both a T-38, a fighter-type aircraft, and an STA, a highly modified corporate-type turbojet. I commanded the shuttle carrier numerous times across the United States while carrying one of our precious and delicate Space Shuttles on the back of my aircraft. Not only was I fortunate enough to train every single astronaut that flew in the Space Shuttle, I had the honor and privilege to be an instructor on these fine aircraft and to train the flight crews to safely fly these challenging aircraft on their challenging missions. In my entire time at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, we never lost an aircraft or a flight crew. Of all my accomplishments, being on such a dedicated and professional team is one of the high points of my life.

3.       How is being a NASA pilot like being a rock star?

Exactly like you’d think, but it did change over the years. When we first started flying the Space Shuttle, we had people trying to buy us drinks, trying to buy us meals. We had politicians, foreign dignitaries, Hollywood superstars, and bestselling authors pushing hard to meet us. I had a woman faint when I shook her hand. I’ve had several women (and one man) rush me and try to kiss me. I’ve had women hand me their hotel room keys with explicit details of expectations should I decide to accept said invitations. I’ve gotten some unambiguous love letters from total strangers. It was a crazy time. Fortunately, as space flight became more routine the level of celebrity diminished. We all realized that what we did was dangerous enough without having distractions heaped into the equation.

4.       What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever witnessed in the Vomit Comet?

I was a captain on both the KC-135 and the DC-9 version of the Vomit Comet. I was in the front office of the airplane with a forward facing window and a closed door, so I didn’t get to see a lot of the hijinks that went on in the back. Probably the most fun was flying the folks from the movie, Apollo 13. Ron Howard and Tom Hanks were total gentlemen and very genuine. The other side of the coin was a certain national morning news anchor that approached the Vomit Comet flight with an exuberant, macho, chest thumping, crash-the-helmets-together … well, you get the picture. I approached the gentleman and introduced myself. I recommended our standard protocol since this was his first flight. The man said, “Listen, Sonny.” – yes, he actually called me “Sonny” even though I was his elder – “I was in Mogadishu.” He pointed at the other first time flyers lining up to take some anti-nausea drugs. “I’m not some xxx” – no, he didn’t actually say “xxx” – “I don’t need any of that crap” – no, what he said was a long string of words much worse than “crap.” I tried to dissuade him two more times, but he became more abusive, dismissive, and confrontational. I completely understand that this was most likely a defense mechanism on his part. However, since my perverse, dark side occasionally overwhelms me and since three warnings is my limit, I smiled and told him to enjoy the flight. Now, you have to understand, to simulate a micro-gravity environment, we pull the nose of the airplane up to about 60 degrees nose high, about 2/3 the distance from straight horizontal to straight vertical (at 1.8 gs), then we push the nose down on the aircraft until it is halfway between straight horizontal and straight down (0 gs). And then we do it again (1.8 gs). And again – 40 times. And we don’t stop for anything. Mr. News Anchor didn’t make it through the first pull. How bad did he get? He was unceremoniously offloaded from the airplane on a pallet via a forklift about 20 minutes after we landed. In 30 years, I’d never seen anybody laid up that badly. Later on, I asked him how the Vomit Comet compared to Mogadishu. He didn’t answer. I felt bad for him, but I distinctly heard my perverse, dark side give a single chuckle. Darn it! No ascended master status for me, it seems.

5.       What will the successor to the Space Shuttle be like?

That’s a great question. It begs the question: what is the US Space Mission? Once we define what we want to do in space, then we can define how we do it. Our problem is that we are having a tough time defining a direction we need to go. In the meantime, NASA should keep doing what it does best. It needs to enable the pursuit of new technologies that will help assure our access to space. After all, if we can get to space for a thousandth the cost, it might open up some new reasons to go to space.

6.       What’s the difference between a rotovator and a space elevator?

A space elevator, sometimes called a beanstalk, is a structure of some kind, tied to the ground at the equator and anchored out past geostationary altitude. It is a ground-based space system. A rotovator is a satellite in a sub-geostationary orbit. You can think of it as a pinwheel. As it orbits, it spins its arms (cables) around in the direction of the orbit. If you match the spin correctly, the cable will come almost straight down through the atmosphere, rest on the ground to grab a payload for a small amount of time, and get yanked back up to space. It then can put the payload in various orbits using some orbital mechanics magic. We don’t have the materials to build either of these structures, but we’re close.

7.       If I was writing about ionized plasma flows around charged spacecraft (I’m not) could you help me make it sound plausible?

The funny thing about plasma in space is that you have no choice. The biggest misconception about space is that it is empty. It is not. The other misconception is about low Earth orbit (LEO). Folks talk about LEO as if we were in a deep space environment. LEO is more like flying in Earth’s upper atmosphere than it is like deep space. You have a lot of oxygen and nitrogen (and other stuff) in the environment that is getting bombarded by a nuclear blast furnace we call the Sun. If you remember from your high school physics, if you pump a photon of the correct frequency into a molecule, the molecule will come apart and become separate atoms. If you keep pumping energy into the atoms, you’ll rip the electrons off the outer shells. You have ionized the atom. In the case of our upper atmosphere, the atoms have been pumped up to such a high energy state that even if an electron comes crashing in and tries to stick to the atom, chances are it can’t. This is plasma and is prevalent in Earth orbits. If I look at the individual particles in this soup, you have both positive and negative particles. The ionized atoms that have lost an electron are charged positive and the free electrons have a negative charge. However, if I look at a big enough box filled with this plasma, it doesn’t have a charge at all. The positive and negative charges balance out. Now stick a chunk of metal in this soup. Strange things happen. The much faster electrons race to the metal and stick to the surface giving it a negative charge. The ionized atoms get sucked towards the surface, but then they push each other away. If you are not careful, you can get a current flowing through your piece of metal. If your piece of metal happens to be a space craft, bad things can happen.

8.       You’ve had such a fantastic set of life experiences so far… were any of the changes in your career path a surprise to you? Or was it all part of a grand plan?

I reassess my life every day. I have always believed that the most important thing you can take through life is a moral compass in which you have total conviction. Changes in my career path never surprised me because I chose the career path. However, I have often been flabbergasted by opportunities presented once I became open to the possibilities.

9.       Now that you’re retired from NASA, what do you miss most?

Surprisingly, very little. I don’t miss the people because the people are still here and I have not lost touch with them. I don’t miss the flying since I have done all the exciting flying that NASA had to offer (except the Space Shuttle – darn it). Retirement was a very straight forward and simple decision. It was time to focus on my next career.

10.   Is using the term machine-based intelligence (M.I.) instead of artificial intelligence (A.I.) a pet peeve of yours and/or other science professionals, or is that only a quirk of your characters?

That aspect of the book was a situation I found interesting. I was on a whirlwind tour that took me to the MIT Lincoln Labs to talk about plasma modeling. During one of the breaks, two of the scientists got into a friendly, yet spirited argument about MI versus AI with all the standard arguments in both directions. They finally settled on MI. Two days later, I was at JPL giving the same plasma modeling talk and I mentioned the argument during one of the breaks. A carbon copy of the MIT argument ensued with the final outcome being AI. I have always personally leaned towards the MI side of the argument, so that is where I went with the book. Interestingly, the industry seems to be gravitating towards using AI as the standard. I think it’s just because it’s easier to say and sounds better.

11.   How did you find that wonderful woman who takes care of your media and publicity?

Even the blind squirrel occasionally gets the nut, or in my case, a gem of unfathomable price. Long story short – she was on a blind date with an astronaut and I was totally enraptured by her. In spite of the true perversity of the Universe, the feeling was mutual. To this day, twenty-plus years later, I still get that teenage thrill when I hold her in my arms.

12.   What was your path to publication?

We started with a literary agent and the classic approach to publishing. I was fortunate in that my wife had already published her first book, Rock to the Top, and we had her experiences on which to refer. After looking at the classic approach more closely, we decided we didn’t want to go in the classic direction. After all, I didn’t write the book to become famous or rich. I wrote it because I could not imagine not writing it. Once again, once you have conviction in your own motivations and desires, decisions are easy. We ended up self-publishing and I could not be happier with the results.

13.   I love the micro-g picture of Cady Coleman with your book! Did she leave it on the I.S.S. for other astronauts to read?

She left it up there. However, knowing how busy those folks are, I don’t see how they have time to do any reading whatsoever.

14.   As Kevin VanHook is writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Specific Impulse, how do you think the story will change stylistically as Mr. VanHook is both a comic book creator and filmmaker?

Kevin and I have had a brief discourse on some key points of the book. I was impressed by how insightful and detailed he was. I expect great things from his interpretation.

15.   How soon will we be able to read Mass Fraction?

I’m dragging my feet a little bit to see Kevin’s interpretation of Specific Impulse. I think he is going to stay true to the book, but I want to see how his interpretation and mine differ before committing to a solid direction with Mass Fraction. In effect, Mass Fraction is finished and ready to go through the nearly infinite and frustrating edit cycle.

16.   When most Sci-Fi writers talk about “Writing Advice from Carl Sagan, Robert Heinlein & Isaac Asimov” they mean they’ve read a lot of the masters’ works and gleaned lessons from that reading. How was this different for you?

Carl Sagan had not yet published Contact when we met, but his series, Cosmos, was a huge hit. He was the ultimate science conversationalist. I was fascinated by how easily he was able to communicate complex physics, math, and science concepts to any audience. However, he was much less accessible than Heinlein or Asimov. Asimov had the most prodigious memory and was able to dig deep into his bag of scientific anomalies and dirty jokes that evening. I was a huge fan of all three of these grand masters, so I targeted my questions. They did not disappoint and I cherish that meeting to this day.

17.   What is your favorite electronic or digital writing tool?

MS Word. I know it is old school, but it still holds up after all these years. I also like StyleWriter.

18.   What is your favorite non-electronic writing tool?

Pencil and a spiral-bound notebook with lined paper. Double space the writing and let the ideas flow!

19.   What’s this I hear about changing guns to walkie-talkies in E.T.?

This bothered me a great deal when they revised the scene. I understand Spielberg’s sensitivity to having gun-wielding Feds around the kids in what is essentially a kid’s movie, but the threat that concerned the Feds was not the kids on their bikes, but the unknown alien in Elliot’s front handlebar basket. You are being disingenuous to your audience when you tell a story that breaks from your fictitious world’s truth. Suspension of disbelief gets suspended. My question would have to be, “What would the FBI really do in this case?” With an unknown level of threat present, I think there would be guns, flak jackets, and a couple of barrels of Lysol just in case. To his credit, Spielberg likes the original version better. I have to agree.

20.   Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

Of course, Han shot first. He beat Greedo to the draw by almost 20 years – it wasn’t even close. Of all the revisionist, politically correct, intellectually bankrupt moves, this has got to be in at least the top 10! And Greedo deserved to die. If you pull a gun on someone and don’t make them put their hands where you can see them … well, it’s time for a little chlorine in the gene pool if you ask me. The original scene as shot was elegant and simple. Han had a gun pointed to his chest and was threatened with imminent death and then they reinvent the scene so that an assassin (of sufficient competence that Han knew his name) misses a shot from less than 5 feet away? And after 20 years, Greedo still didn’t ask Han to put both hands on the table? C’mon! Now you’ve insulted me as an audience member.

The book trailer for Specific Impulse

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice, and an outcast of Colorado by temporary necessity.
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5 Responses to Interview With Charles Justiz

  1. What an incredible life story. That alone would make a great book, never mind the sort of fiction you could make with those experiences and knowledge set under your belt.

    Best of luck to you, Charles!

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