NASA Scientist Claudia Alexander Dies at 56

Claudia Alexander, was instrumental in the launching of the Rosetta Project
Claudia Alexander, was instrumental in the launching of the Rosetta Project
Claudia Alexander, who helped direct NASA’s Galileo Mission to Jupiter, died at age 56
Claudia Alexander, a scientist who helped direct NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and the international Rosetta space-exploration project, died July 11 at 56. And though her name is not at the forefront of your mind, in the world of space science, Claudia Alexander  is a household name. In addition to her position with the U.S. Rosetta Project, she was the last project manager of NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter and, early on, was a member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
As a researcher Alexander’s studies have included the evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, magnetospheres, plate tectonics, space plasma, the solar wind and the planet Venus. Dr. Alexander, whose doctorate was in plasma physics, conducted landmark research on the evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, solar wind and other subjects. She has written or co-authored 14 papers.

Alexander’s writing is an extension of her outgoing personality. But she wasn’t always that way. She said of herself,  “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. It got better as I got older, and I was just determined to make friends. I think I came out of that experience confident in my ability to have friends wherever I go.”

She was the last project manager for NASA’s Galileo mission, in which twin spacecraft launched in 1989 made an unprecedented trip to Jupiter, using the Earth’s and the planet Venus’ gravity to propel themselves there. Along the way, they provided unprecedented observations of the solar system.

In 1993, the University of Michigan named her its Woman of the Year. A decade later, she received the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering from Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine, and she was featured in a 2007 article in Black Enterprise Magazine.
As good as she was at what she did, Claudia spoke of a time when she wanted to be a journalist  However she explains, “But my parents were convinced engineering was the answer! 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 and got a bachelor’s in geophysics at UC-Berkeley.”
Alexander moved on for a master’s in geophysics and space physics at UCLA, and a Michigan Engineering PhD in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, specializing in space plasma. It turned out to be a good path. “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 became a leader in the space program, managing major long-range projects and a sizable staff of highly proficient professionals, each an authority in a complex field. Of her experience she said,  “To be an effective leader you have to be a good listener — listening even to those who disagree with you — and a good communicator; you have to be persuasive. You have to have the vision and be able to make others see the vision. You have to be able to motivate and bring people’s strengths out of them. You set the tone for the whole project.”

Regarding her leadership style and professional approach she gave credit to a couple of mentors who took her under their wings. “I wouldn’t be the person I am without them,” she said. “They made me aware of things that I might not have otherwise noticed.”

At the time of her death, Dr. Alexander was project manager for the United States’ involvement in the international Rosetta Project, which marked the first time a spacecraft rendezvoused with a comet.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where Dr. Alexander worked as the U.S. leader on the Rosetta Project, reported the cause of death was breast cancer. The place of death was not announced.

Claudia Joan Alexander was born in Vancouver, Canada, on May 30, 1959, and raised in Santa Clara, Calif.

She was a 1985 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and received a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1985. She completed her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1993.

After she won an engineering internship to NASA’s Ames Research Institute, and her boss there discovered she was spending most of her time sneaking over to the space building, he sent her there.

And thank goodness her boss did. The world of science has advanced based on her contributions.

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