Reservist part-time Hurricane Hunter, full-time mission planner for International Space Station

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A. C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Since she was a child, one 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Reserve Citizen Airman was always fascinated by the skies and the stars.

Maj. Joyce K. Hirai turned her passion into atypical careers as she now flies through hurricanes as an aerial reconnaissance weather officer in the Air Force Reserve while also assisting astronauts and space exploration serving as an International Space Station Flight Controller in Operations Planning as a Cimarron Software Services, Inc. contractor at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“I love both of my jobs,” she said. “Every day is different and offers unique challenges that keep things interesting; but most importantly I feel like I’m making a difference. With the weather reconnaissance mission, I’m making an impact on people’s lives by collecting weather data to improve forecasts. At JSC, I see and work every day with the rapidly growing space industry, whether it’s cooperating with commercial ventures or laying foundations for deeper space exploration – we are preparing to go back to the moon.”

The major, who earned her meteorology degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, started her weather officer career in the Air Force in 2008 where she performed, managed and directed weather operations that have a direct effect on U.S. military force activities. For the next 11 years, she traveled the world serving in a variety of assignments at Sembach Kaserne Air Base and Kapaun Air Station, Germany; Misawa Air Base, Japan; U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, South Korea; Izmir Air Base, Turkey; and Al Dhafra Air Base, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Looking back at her active duty career, she said she was pretty lucky as she had great assignments and gained valuable experiences working with a diverse range of people and missions throughout her career.

But, the 53rd WRS “Hurricane Hunter” mission was always in her thoughts, and she said that by 2019 she was ready for a change.

“When I was a lieutenant in the Weather Officer Course at Keesler Air Force Base, we toured the 53rd WRS and met with some of the Hurricane Hunters,” she said. “It’s always something I wanted to do, so when I got the opportunity to join the unit, I was ready.”

She concluded her active duty career and became a member of the 53rd WRS, the only unit of its kind in the Department of Defense, July 1, 2019. As an ARWO, Hirai directs the crew, which in addition to herself, includes two pilots, a navigator and loadmaster, to the true center of the storm. During each pass through the eye, crews release a dropsonde, a meteorological instrument that collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and barometric pressure data as it descends to the ocean surface.

During a tropical storm or hurricane, the crew usually flies through the eye of a storm at about 10,000 feet four to six times. The aircraft also collects surface wind speed and flight-level data. This information is transmitted continuously throughout the flight to the National Hurricane Center to assist them with their forecasts and storm warnings.

The unit also gathers data for winter storms impacting the Eastern Seaboard and data from atmospheric rivers, huge bands of moisture that can carry as much as 25 times the water equivalent of the Mississippi River, in the form of vapor, impacting the West Coast.

“This job is amazing, especially being on the science side as a meteorologist. It’s probably the most exciting job a meteorologist can have being in the weather, and seeing the results of your work, realizing the data that we collect improves forecast models and saves lives,” she said.

While Hirai was earning her qualifications as a meteorologist with the Hurricane Hunters, she was also beginning a new career at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, a job she obtained through a chance meeting with a talent acquisitions manager at a holiday party she attended with one of her friends.

“I sent her my resume, interviewed, and she called back letting me know they had a job opportunity for me,” she said.

Hirai is a mission and flight planner for astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

“I support and help plan the schedules and daily activities for the astronauts onboard, which can range from conducting science experiments or working with other flight controllers to help coordinate activities such as space walks,” she said. “We are all very integrated there, which I enjoy as you can learn about each other’s jobs.”

Currently, Hirai is long-range planner support certified, which means she’s qualified to work on events and activities that will occur seven to six days from an event’s execution, more commonly referred to at NASA as “E minus seven” or “E minus six.” She is working on her next certification as a real-time planning engineer, which are activities that occur within three days of an event’s execution day.  

In addition to enjoying the variety of tasks she performs daily there, she also says it’s fun to work with other international partners supporting the ISS mission.

“We work with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, European Space Agency, Russian federal space agency ROSCOSMOS, and Marshall Space Flight Center that handles all the payloads,” she said. “Even as the new person, I get to work with people from these agencies every day.”

This is nothing new for Hirai, who traveled the world with the military and worked with many international partners, but she credits that experience as beneficial to being able to communicate effectively with her work counterparts and appreciate their cultures.

March 31 concludes Women’s History Month, and Hirai hit the motherlode for unique careers in the military and civilian arenas, especially in the STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, fields, setting an example for future generations. While women make up half the U.S. workforce, only 27% work in STEM fields, whereas men comprise 73% of all STEM workers, according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau report.

Growing up in California, she said she first became passionate about meteorology, after a local news weather forecaster taught the subject to her class in elementary school. That visit was an unexpected spark that she embraced and inspired her life’s journey. She said she encourages all youth to find something that inspires, excites, and gets them out of their comfort zone, while also finding a mentor early on to help guide them down their journey. Be open to trying new things because it could lead to unexpected opportunities that could be the catalyst to achieving your goals.

“There is more than one path to reaching your goal. Create your own path by doing something you love and are passionate about because that spirit will carry you through to your goal, even during times you may doubt yourself,” she said. “I knew at my core that the skies and the stars were where I wanted to be, but I didn’t know how to get there as a child. So I paved my own path, took a few detours, but through my perseverance, passion, and guidance from mentors, all of this helped me get to where I am today. Try to never lose sight of what makes you happy and who you truly are inside.”