They Call Him ‘Gus’: EROS’ Newest Director Brings Diverse Background to the Job

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Christopher Joseph (CJ) Loria brings a fascinating back story—and a quiet, collaborative leadership philosophy—to his role as the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center’s newest director.

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

The recent USGS press release announcing his appointment captures many of the interesting details of CJ’s career:

  • He comes to EROS from NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where he was a Director with Syncom Space Services;
  • In 2013, he was selected to the National Science Foundation’s independent assessment board for its National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, CO. NEON is a continental-scale ecological observation and land use change facility, providing calibrated data products to scientists, academia, researchers, and public policy makers;
  • And he was the first astronaut selected as a NASA Fellow in 2002, earning a master’s degree in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2004.

But what the press release doesn’t reveal is that CJ is an introvert. That he has a passion for piloting jet fighters—even into the danger zone that comes with flying out of control. And that as a test pilot, CJ studied and evaluated the stability and control characteristics of an aircraft, specializing in the aircraft flying qualities that are critical to the safety of flight and the ease of controlling that aircraft, both in steady flight and while maneuvering. 

He has known some of the most storied astronauts in NASA’s history, including Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and John Young. He also knew well the astronauts on the ill-fated Columbia shuttle that exploded during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003—a mission for which he had volunteered to be the pilot.

CJ discussed that and more in a conversation recently about his life before EROS. A second question-and-answer discussion about his work here at the Center and his leadership philosophy going forward will be coming in the near future.

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

(Public domain.)

Did you grow up thinking you wanted to fly planes or spaceships some day?

“I think I was about 7 or 8, and I realized I really wanted to be a pilot. And not just a pilot, but a fighter pilot. I just always loved airplanes, and thought I would love flying in them, and I did. So, I was lucky enough to get a shot to do that.”

Your parents were on the faculty at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Did that shape your desire to go into space, or in any other way?

“It was just normal for us. My dad ... was the deputy operations manager of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science there. My mom eventually became the deputy curator of the museum at MIT. I pretty much grew up around there. I met (Harold) Doc Edgerton (a collaborator with Jacques Cousteau). And, you know, it wasn’t unusual for my dad to walk me around the various laboratories and classrooms there, or to take me to see a nuclear accelerator.”

What did you take away from those experiences, growing up in a household like that?

“Well, from that background, and from the people I met, I observed and learned for myself the tremendous value of education, the passion for your area of study or work, and the hard work that goes into gaining that learning and ultimately a rewarding career.”

Your nickname is “Gus.” Why?

“My squadron mates gave me that back during Desert Storm after (astronaut) Gus Grissom. He was also a test pilot. As a matter of fact, I used to fly a bit with (astronaut) John Young, and we were at the Cape (NASA Kennedy Space Center) for some meetings. One day we were driving to the day’s meetings and John was sharing with me about the old days. At one point I asked him, ‘So, what was Gus Grissom like?’ And he said he was the best test pilot he ever saw. So, that was a pretty cool and special moment.  And getting to fly and work with a moon walker like John Young was pretty amazing each and every time, too.”

As a test pilot, you conducted what was called the first successful excitation of the F-18 Hornet Falling Leaf out-of-control mode. Talk about that.

“It’s funny that the two things I thought were the hardest and liked the least at test pilot school were studying modern digital flight controls and the out-of-control or departure-and-spin syllabus. It’s funny that both areas became my bread and butter later as a test pilot in the flying qualities branch at VX-23. During the mid-1990’s, we lost a number of F/A-18 aircraft and pilots to the “falling leaf” mode of out-of-control flight. In the A through D models of the F-18, there were multiple fuel tanks in the aircraft, and they would actively pump and balance fuel to manage the aircraft’s center of gravity. The aircraft’s external stores—fuel tanks, bombs, or rockets, for example—also were used by the aircraft’s computers to calculate the center of gravity and actively balance the fuel transfer and consumption. We learned that in certain conditions, if you were maneuvering and the angle of attack got really high, like a 60-degree angle of attack, the aircraft could enter an out-of-control mode.”

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

(Public domain.)

So, what happened then?

“It wasn’t a spin. However, the aircraft was out of control, not self-recovering and not properly responding to the pilot’s flight control inputs. Basically, the aircraft was falling out of the sky while literally fluttering like a falling leaf. Tragically, we lost a number of pilots and aircraft because of that.”

You were testing how to bring it back under control?

“Yes. We wanted to excite the ‘falling leaf’ out-of-control dynamic on a flight test range with an instrumented aircraft so we could better understand it, and then develop possible emergency procedures and/or engineering solutions. Ultimately, I authored updates to the F/A-18 flight manual, and we applied what we learned to the designs for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.” 

Sounds like a fairly risky venture?

“To reduce our risk for the flight test, we also wanted to use an aircraft that had a “spin chute” on it.  Back in the mid-1990’s, the only F/A-18 aircraft left in the U.S. that had a spin chute was out at NASA Dryden, now NASA Armstrong. So, I went out there and flew it. The NASA test pilot took the first hop ... he was not able to excite the mode. I flew the next hop and was able to get the aircraft into the falling leaf out-of-control mode. We were able to get all that instrumented information, plus high speed video from the cameras on the ground and from inside the cockpit.”

So, did flying out of control get your blood pumping or what?

“You’d be surprised what you can get used to. During flight training and during Test Pilot School, for the first couple spins and stuff, yeah, your IQ definitely gets dropped down, and your heart rate goes up. But the more you do things, the calmer you become, the more your situational awareness improves and, you’re more in tune with what’s going on. You’re able to record, to add to the data that’s been sent to the control room via telemetry.”

So bungee jumping off a bridge would be no big deal to you?

“You won’t get me bungee jumping.”

“You had relationships with some of NASA’s most storied astronauts, like Neil Armstrong and John Young. How did those relationships happen, and what did you learn from them?

“Neil Armstrong came and talked to my astronaut class in 1996. If you hadn’t looked at a picture of him recently, you would probably have not recognized him. Neil had a wonderful, strong, quiet presence, and he was dressed quite like the college professor he was (at the University of Cincinnati). He was a tremendous speaker, very open, honest, and humble. You know, just the nicest gentleman, very earnest and unassuming.  Later, and for a little while before he passed, I began a correspondence with Neil via email where we discussed leadership. He was a great leader, a great test pilot and astronaut. He was a very genuine individual who brought out the best in those around him.”

And what about John Young?

“John Young was more of a character, a little bit more outgoing. If I remember my NASA stories right, I think John initially got in trouble because he took a (corned beef) sandwich up with him on his Gemini 3 mission with Gus Grissom.”

You were supposed to pilot STS-113, the Endeavour shuttle mission, in late 2002 when you hurt your back. That kept you out of the pilot’s seat, right?

“Flight test, and the human exploration of space, are very challenging and unforgiving lines of work. I was very disappointed when the flight surgeon and then the orthopedic surgeon told me I had herniated two lumbar discs in three places and that surgery was not an option, which resulted in my being medically grounded and replaced on the mission.”

Color photograph of Christopher "C.J." Loria

Christopher Joseph "CJ" Loria, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD.

(Public domain.)

That had to be a huge disappointment?

“For me at the time, it was quite upsetting and disappointing, and I was a pretty grumpy individual for a couple of months. In fact, I had actually volunteered for STS-107, the Columbia that we lost on February 1, 2003. I knew everyone on that flight. For example, Dave Brown and Laurel Clark were flight surgeons from my astronaut class. We used to meet at my house on Saturday mornings, and we used to bicycle 25, 30, 50 miles. I’d been on travel with STS-107 Commander Rick Husband; we shared hotel rooms and meals. I knew Ilan Ramon, the Israeli on the mission, and with both of us being combat veterans, we shared a bond. So, turning on the TV that morning and seeing Columbia break up during re-entry was a terrible thing to see. I guess I was stunned and shocked, and I volunteered for the recovery and investigation efforts. Throughout it all, it was a pretty good wakeup call. It very effectively fixed my grumpiness.”

So how did being medically grounded change the trajectory of your career?

“I was reassigned as the only astronaut working full-time on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane within NASA’s Space Launch Initiative Program. There, I worked in several areas, including the design of the crew compartment and the pilot’s station. We culminated that work with testing of a mock-up of the cockpit in simulated zero gravity aboard NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft, a modified KC-135 aircraft. For that work, I earned the NASA Acquisition Improvement award and was selected as a NASA Fellow. I went on to graduate school at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, where I earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration. Following that, I was asked by a former colleague to join the NASA Constellation Program at NASA Headquarters, where I served as the first Deputy Chief Engineer on the Program. So, I guess sometimes in life one door closes and through hard work, successes, and positive relationships, one finds that other doors and new paths open.”

You have flown 32 different aircraft. How did you end up piloting the Goodyear Blimp?

“That was just one of the benefits of going into the Air Force test pilot school. That was one of the broad spectra of aircraft that they wanted us to experience and fly. And just different types of air speed, you know, crew resources, things like that. Everything from four-channel digital, fly-by-wire aircraft like the Mirage 2000, the F-16, the F-18, to cables and pulleys on the Goodyear Blimp.”

Did you have a favorite aircraft?

“I loved flying fighters. Fighters are like sports cars. The larger the aircraft, in some ways, they’re more challenging to fly. The control forces are heavier, and they are slower responding to control and throttle inputs. But, probably my three favorite aircraft would be the F-18, X-31, and the Mirage 2000. The ergonomics they had, the human-machine interface, were remarkable. They were generationally ahead of their predecessors.”

Let me sidetrack you a bit and ask you about something you wrote concerning unmanned missions to a lunar polar location as a testing ground for future Mars explorations. Talk about that.

“In my experiences, as I remember it, there have historically been two groups battling for a fixed NASA budget. There’s the human exploration space people, and then the robotic people, the people that want to send out a Voyager or another Mars rover. Going to Mars is going to be a tremendously expensive and challenging endeavor. I’m a test pilot. We develop and test your prototype system, tweak it, find out what’s not working right or what’s broken, then implement and field an improved model. The lunar poles, they believe there is ice there. So, it has been proposed that the ice on the moon’s surface can be used in situ to produce oxygen and fuel. Similarly, on Mars, they believe there could be ice at the poles. My recommendation was to set up a lunar outpost using robotics. It would probably take a number of missions to get the habitation modules (habs), solar arrays, and the logistics such as medical, food, water, tools and spare parts situated. Then Houston Mission Control could verify that all the systems are working, holding temperature and pressure, and producing electricity. It would be all tested and checked out before you launch humans off the Earth. This approach would involve teamwork, getting these two disparate NASA groups to work better together. In turn that would be a positive change to the overall NASA culture.  Once the entire system and approach was tested on the moon, apply those lessons learned to the plans for Mars exploration.”

A NASA-USGS Architecture Study Team is discussing what Landsat missions should look like after the launch of Landsat 9, including a potential collaboration with commercial and international partners. What are your thoughts about that?

“Let me start by saying, private firms have already demonstrated they can do stellar work. DigitalGlobe is a tremendous example. And there’s plenty of others. For example, Space X, where colleagues from my careers with NASA and industry are working. Similarly, over at Blue Origin and at Virgin Galactic. It’s a tremendously exciting time for the aerospace industry and the human exploration of space. With Landsat 10, or some people have called it Landsat X or Landsat Next, it is an exciting undertaking and continuation of the Landsat mission. (USGS) Director (Jim) Reilly has given us an opportunity through the Landsat Next Architecture Study Team to look at it and determine what’s needed. It’s an intellectual science and technology challenge. How do we leverage this future investment in Landsat to not only serve the Earth observation and land use change communities, but what might we also be able to do for other mission areas such as Water, Minerals, and Hazards? All that is important as we face challenges such as water in the west, strategic minerals, and the inland flooding we are seeing here in South Dakota and Nebraska.”