(Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons via National Aeronautics Space Administration, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov)
Claudia Alexander, a pioneering Black scientist who reached for the stars on a daily basis as a NASA project leader, died July 11 in Arcadia, Calif. She was 56.
Alexander, who was the last project manager of NASA’s 14-year, $1.5 billion Galileo mission to Jupiter and spearheaded NASA’s role in the international Rosetta space exploration project, died after a 10-year battle with breast cancer, according to a NASA statement.
A brilliant and beloved member of the science community, Alexander was a rare sight in NASA’s halls, being both Black and a woman.
“I’m used to walking between two different cultures,” Alexander told The Los Angeles Times last year about being Black and female in a White male-dominated field. But navigating that dichotomy in many ways aligned with her passion for space discovery, she added. “For me, this is among the purposes of my life—to take us from states of ignorance to states of understanding with bold exploration that you can’t do every day.”
Born to a social worker father and librarian mother in Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 30, 1959, and raised in Santa Clara, Calif., Alexander was accustomed to being a singularity.
“I was a pretty lonely girl. I was the only Black girl in pretty much an all-White school and spent a lot of time by myself—with my imagination,” Alexander said in an interview with the Michigan Engineer magazine.
Her head was not always in the clouds, however. At one point in her life, she wanted to be a journalist. But her parents vetoed the idea, saying engineering was a better choice. But it didn’t feel like the right fit.
FILE – In this Sept. 21, 2003, file photo, Claudia Alexander, right, project manager for Galileo, waits in the mission control room in Pasadena, Calif., along with engineer Nagin Cox, center, and others for the spacecraft to take its final plunge into Jupiter. Alexander, a pioneering scientist who helped direct NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and the international Rosetta space exploration project, has died Saturday, July 11, 2015, after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 56. (AP Photo/Ric Francis, File)
“I found it was a lot more fun to think about the flow of water in a river than water in the city sewer, so I went into earth-science,” she told the Michigan Engineer. Eventually, she found her path in planetary science, particularly after a mentorship with the astronomer Ray T. Reynolds, during a high school summer internship with NASA, according to The New York Times.
Alexander obtained a bachelor’s degree in geophysics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1983, a master’s in geophysics and space physics from UCLA in 1985, and a doctorate in space plasma physics from the University of Michigan in 1993.
“My best memory at Michigan Engineering was staying up all night with friends arguing about which one of us was going to do the ‘most for mankind’ with the research we were doing,” she recalled. She later added about her chosen career, “I love working in the space program on one-of-a-kind engineering applications, like flying spacecraft, which is really a team effort. There are so many aspects of keeping a piece of engineering working and operating when it’s thousands of kilometers away from you. The ingenuity required is amazing.”
Alexander worked at the United States Geological Survey studying plate tectonics and the Ames Research Center observing Jovian moons, before moving, in 1986, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she established herself as a leader. As a project manager, she was, among several things, responsible for $35 million in instruments to collect data on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, including its temperature, according to the Times.
As a researcher, Alexander made a name in areas, such as evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, magnetospheres, plate tectonics, space plasma, the solar wind and the planet Venus, according to her NASA biography.
She was even able to fulfill her earlier dreams of being a writer. In addition to writing or co-authoring more than a dozen scholarly papers, Alexander has authored several children’s books, including titles in the “Windows to Adventure” series, “Which of the Mountains Is Greatest of All?” and “Windows to the Morning Star,” and written articles for an online tennis blog. The Romance Writers of America member has also published novels on science fiction.
In 2003, Alexander was recognized for her contributions to science, receiving the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering from Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineer & Information Technology Magazine.
Colleagues, former professors and mentors and others in the science community are grieving the loss of such a bright light.
“Claudia Alexander has left our world, to go explore others no doubt,” said Bob Pappalardo, senior research scientist with the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission with whom Alexander worked on the Cassini mission. “I was fortunate to have worked closely with her on the Cassini mission, where we learned from each other. She is an example for others, who may strive to be as curious and as giving.”
“The passing of Claudia Alexander reminds us of how fragile we are as humans but also as scientists how lucky we are to be part of planetary science,” said James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “She was an absolute delight to be with and always had a huge engaging smile when I saw her. It was easy to see that she loved what she was doing. We lost a fantastic colleague and great friend. I will miss her.”
“Claudia brought a rare combination of skills to her work as a space explorer,” said Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “She…had a special understanding of how scientific discovery affects us all, and how our greatest achievements are the result of teamwork, which came easily to her. Her insight into the scientific process will be sorely missed.”
Her role as a mentor and role model will also be missed, supporters said.
“Claudia Alexander was one of our most beloved and distinguished AOSS alums,” said Jim Slavin, chairman of the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at Michigan University. “She was a great scientist and leader, an inspiration to us and to all of the students who followed, a benefactor to our student fellowship program, and one of those singular, truly beautiful people who energize everyone with whom they come in contact.”