Saturday, August 1, 2009

Nerdy April's First Guest Interview: Joyce Hirai

Welcome to Nerdy April's first guest interview with my friend Joyce Hirai!!!

I first met Joyce during the summer of 2007 when we were both counselors for Aviation Challenge at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center! Just for old times sake, here is a picture of us back in the day at Aviation Challenge!


Since then she has graduated college from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and is now a Weather Officer in the Air Force. Recently Joyce served at one of the Transoceanic Abort Sites or TAL sites for the Space Shuttle Mission of STS-127. These sites are very important as part of the safety operations of a Space Shuttle launch. Since STS-127 made a safe landing yesterday I thought it would be fun to learn more about the duties of this awesome Weather Officer during her TAL assignment!!!

1) What is your rank/position/job description? And specifically in relation to the TAL site? Which TAL site were you at?
I am a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and my job title is a Weather Officer. My current position at my squadron is the Officer in Charge (OIC) of Flight Weather Briefings. It is one of the most important sections in the unit because we are specifically dealing with the pilots. We usually do not know what type of mission they are executing but if there is a note mentioning who is on board—for example, the POTUS, it can create a lot of pressure. The pilots will provide us their departure and arrival information and we will forecast the weather for them so they will have an idea of what to expect during their flight. My current position does not really relate to the TAL site but knowing how to forecast the weather is very helpful for the ones that do not know what to look for. In Zaragoza, Spain, where I was located during STS-127, during launch night everyone knew who I was and would ask me for my interpretation of what was occurring in Spain and the Cape.
2) How many balloons were launched in preparation for STS-127? And what kind of data do you gather from them? Any other interesting things about balloons?!
Approximately 14 balloons were launched during the July launch. Normally if the Shuttle were not to scrub at all, the number of balloons launched would be 7. Attached to the weather balloon, the weather system hanging is called a radiosonde. This white box has a few instruments that will record data as it ascends up the atmosphere. This box will record wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and humidity. This is all powered by a battery that lasts for a good 5 hours. Once the balloon pops, we would send the data to the Spaceflight Meteorological Group (SMG) manager so he /she may analyze it to determine what kind of weather the shuttle will experience in case of a TAL. The radiosonde is a great instrument to get a quick and dirty idea of what the atmosphere is doing and usually the data will be ready in just a few hours.

During one of the sunset launches, you can see the balloon on the top right corner of the picture.
3) Did the weather at your site ever violate the Launch Commit Criteria, and if so, how?

There are three TAL sites within Spain and France. One location has to meet weather criteria in order for the Shuttle to launch initially. In Zaragoza, winds tend to be a factor. Between Zaragoza and Moron, we jumped back and forth on being the prime site. The prime site is where the shuttle would land in case of a TAL. The night of the launch, the narrator announced who was the prime site for the TAL and he notated that Moron was until the winds died down and we found out that we became the prime site while he announced it. Next launch, listen carefully and you will hear which TAL site is the prime site—either Istres, Moron, or Zaragoza.


Launching my first balloon, it was gusting up to 29 mph..that's why I look goofy!

4) Will you be working TAL again and if so, in what capacity?

I will be supporting STS-128 Discovery in August. I will be fulfilling the same duties as the balloon operator.

5) How did working TAL fit into your career/life goals?

I am an aspiring astronaut and having every opportunity to be involved with NASA is a stepping stone to my life/career goal. TAL support is giving me the chance to network with military personnel, NASA civilian workers, and the local Astronaut assigned to the TAL site.


Myself and Astronaut Capt Dan Burbank

6) Did you get to meet anyone important?

Everyone at the TAL site was an important asset to the shuttle launching successfully. From the PJs, Medics, Pilots, to NASA civilians, we were all a vital role to the STS-127 launch. Every site had an astronaut to provide insight and made sure everything met criteria. The local astronaut at Zaragoza was Dan Burbank, Capt, US Coast Guard.

7) Can you give a description of your "normal" day-to-day job?

For TAL, the days would out start pretty simple. There was a group of 4 weather personnel from all over Europe and one person from Patrick AFB, FL. We would start our weather support T-48 hours with the first balloon launch while the others would take manual observations of the sky. The observers worked 12 hour shifts while I only worked during a balloon launch. The next balloon launch would be T-36 hours, T-24, T-13, T-9, T-3:45, and T-1 was my schedule. On launch days, I would be pulling 16+ hour days and if there were to be a 24hr scrub, I would have to do another 16+ hour day the next day since weather is continuous. During the STS-127 launch, there were three scrubs. Two of which were 24hr meaning I pulled two 16+ hour shifts consecutively with minimal sleep of maybe 4 hours. When the Shuttle does not launch, the Astronauts are not the only people that are upset. Can you imagine all the other personnel having to adjust their schedule for a 24, 48 hr scrub?

8) Any other information you would like to share?!?!?!

I was amazed how well these TAL sites were orchestrated during launch night. All the personnel in support of putting 7 Astronauts into space safely requires a lot of attention to detail, situational awareness, and just pure cooperation from everyone. I have a lot of respect for everyone involved in the shuttle launch process because being part of it personally really gives you a new perspective of what really goes on in the background. All the people are a key piece to the puzzle for getting our explorers into space.

Thank you Joyce for all your great insight into this very important piece of the human spaceflight puzzle!