With a name like Dr. Charles Justiz he could be the lead character in a TV crime drama, but he’s more interested in the sky than in catching criminals. Justiz has logged in excess of 15,000 flight hours in more than 100 different types of aircraft, including NASA’s weightless training aircraft affectionately known as the Vomit Comet and the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. He’s been hooked on flying since he was 14. “My dad was a surgeon in Cuba,” Justiz recalls. “He had a fear of heights and decided the best way to get over it was to take flying lessons. He’d share the lessons with me and I fell in love.”
Justiz’ family is Cuban, but his father had practices in both Havana and Miami, which is where Justiz was born. The family moved to Florida permanently during the Castro revolution of 1959. (Their former home in Havana is now the Cuban Ministry of Marriages.) His love of flying continued in America, but lessons cost money. “It was expensive,” Justiz says. “I thought, ‘who could I get to pay for this? Oh, I know, the Air Force!’”
In 1974 he graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and spent ten years in the Air Force with tours of duty as an instructor pilot at Webb Air Force Base as well as doing flight tests at Eglin Air Force Base before retiring to join NASA. During his almost 30 year tenure with the space agency, he developed the Crew Resource Management program for NASA aviators and pushed to get it adopted, was the program manager for developing an on-board landing simulation system for Space Shuttle pilots to use while on orbit and has been the Chief of Aviation Safety for NASA. Currently, he holds an adjunct associate professorship at the University of Houston in aerospace engineering and a doctorate degree from the University of Houston for his research in Thermo Physics and Plasma Dynamics and is a NASA Doctoral Fellow. His wife is fond of saying to him, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do that. Oh, wait, I guess it does.” This summer Justiz retired from NASA, just as the agency began to make some massive changes, including budget reductions, changing missions and the end of the shuttle program, a program that defined his decades with NASA.
“From the very beginning it was exciting,” he recalls of the early 1980’s. “We had never flown a reusable space craft before and we really had no idea of how to do it. We just made stuff up as we went.” In those heady days NASA was rocked with creativity and enthusiasm. After test flights, the first orbital space shuttle, Columbia, carrying four astronauts was launched on November 11, 1982. Justiz was part of it all: the breakthroughs, the routine missions and the horrific disasters of Challenger and Columbia that claimed the lives of 14 crew members. The space shuttle program dovetails Justiz’ career at NASA. He was there in the early days and now, just like Justiz, the shuttle program is being retired. After almost 30 years, the final flight is scheduled for June of 2011. “It’s going to be sad to see it end without something to replace it,” he says. “But I do think we’ll continue in space, if not NASA than with commercial explorations.”
As for the administration’s new focus, from the moon to Mars, he’s not too sure. “It’s a lot easier to get back to the moon than to Mars,” Justiz says. “We haven’t even established a base on the moon and there is a ton of information to be had there before leaping to Mars.” Today Justiz runs his own company, JFA Corporate Aviation Safety Consulting, with a large Internet company as a major client. And he’s taken to writing sci-fi. No stranger to writing, he is the author of 20 technical papers on in-flight simulation, as well as 30 technical papers on ionized plasma flows around charged spacecraft, he’s decided to take the plunge into fiction.
“I’ve always read science fiction but I found there just wasn’t much out there anymore that interested me,” he explains. “I wanted to write a thriller that was based in actual science.” His first novel — and the first in a trilogy — Specific Impulse, is now available at Amazon.com. The book is a science-based thriller that has been compared by critics to the works of Michael Crichton and Robin Cook and features a machine based intelligence named FRED, that is rather like a friendly HAL, as one of the main characters. “FRED was really an afterthought,” explains Justiz. “I needed a third main character and I didn’t like the way MBIs were portrayed in fiction. Data (the MBI from Star Trek: The Next Generation) has no emotions. Why? MBIs have emotions, we just don’t understand them.”
The lovable computer has become a favorite part of the book and spawned T-shirts sporting the slogan What Would FRED Do? In between consulting trips, Justiz resides in Seabrook, Texas, with his wife, Dayna Steele, former KLOL rock jock and author of Rock to the Top: What I Learned about Success from the World’s Greatest Rock Stars, three sons and a faithful Labrador named Lulu. Son Cris, 22, from a previous marriage, is in college now but the two younger boys are still at home. He often bikes along with 14-year –old Dack (whose name is a NASA acronym for Dayna and Charlie’s kid) and 11-year-old Nick to school in the mornings.
“It’s an idyllic life,” the pilot turned author says. “Golfing, water skiing, just sitting on the patio by the lake with a Scotch and a good cigar. What more could I ask for?” And of course, he’s working on his second book, a project that his multi-tasking wife helps to promote. “David Crosby called me, June 3, 1990, and asked me to take care of a bunch of astronauts who wanted to come to the Crosby, Stills and Nash concert in The Woodlands,” recalls Steele. “This guy shows up in tight jeans and aviator sunglasses and I asked if he was with our group. He lowered his sunglasses and said ‘I hope so.’ I called my girlfriend and said ‘I just met the guy I’m going to marry.’” Twenty years later the couple is still committed to each other, frequently flying small planes on family vacations. They’re also season ticket holders to Broadway Across America-Houston. His wife says the big guy is a sucker for musical theater and chick flicks. “Although he’ll watch Top Gun over and over,” Steele says. “With the volume full blast on the surround sound so you think the jets are right there in the living room with us.”Once a fly boy, always a fly boy.
On November 11 the nonprofit Literacy Advance of Houston will honor the Justiz couple in its Champions of Literacy Series. The fundraiser is called, appropriately enough, Rock ‘n’ Roll Meets Rocket Science.
For more information and tickets visit: literacyadvancehouston.org.