The Gravity field and steady state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is the European Space Agency's mission that combines GPS tracking and gravity gradiometry to determine the Earth's mean gravity field with unprecedented, global accuracy with a spatial resolution down to 80 km. This resolution makes GOCE gravity gradient data in particular useful for lithospheric scale modeling. However, the relation between coordinates in a model frame and at satellite altitude is not straightforward, and most geophysical modeling programs require a planar approximation, which may not be appropriate for satellite data. We derive the exact relation between the model reference frame, in which gradients from lithospheric modeling are given, and the local north-oriented frame in which GOCE gradients at 255 km altitude are given. We generated gradients from a GOCE gravity field model and assessed whether the orientation differences between local north-oriented frame and model reference frame are relevant. In addition, we assessed the same for airborne gradiometry at an altitude of 5 km because these data are complementary to GOCE. We find that if the regional area has a longitude extension of 5°, the errors stay below 10%. For larger areas the standard deviation of the systematic errors may be 40% of the signal standard deviation. Comparing topographic mass reduction in planar and spherical approximation, one sees significant long wavelength differences in terms of gravity gradients or gradient-tensor invariants. The maximum error is up to 1 E at satellite altitude compared with maximum signal amplitude of 3 E. Planar approximation is therefore not accurate enough for topographic mass reduction of GOCE gravity gradients.