Claudia Alexander, Beloved NASA Project Scientist, Dies at 56

Claudia Alexander, Beloved NASA Project Scientist, Dies at 56

Claudia Alexander, a beloved NASA project scientist who spearheaded NASA's side of the European Rosetta comet mission & the Galileo mission to Jupiter, has died at age 56.

Alexander died after a 10-year battle with breast cancer, according to a NASA statement.

Alexander was a well-loved & prolific planetary scientist, science communicator, & even science fiction writer & children's author. She has left her mark on the study of comet formation, Jupiter & its moons, magnetospheres, plate tectonics, space plasma, the solar wind & the planet Venus, & according to her NASA biography, she wrote 14 scientific papers.

p> "Claudia brought a rare combination of skills to her work as a space explorer," Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the NASA statement. "Of course, with a doctorate in plasma physics, her technical credentials were solid. But she moreover had a special understanding of how scientific discovery affects us all, & how our greatest achievements are the result of teamwork, which came easily to her. Her insight into the scientific process will be sorely missed."

After a high-school internship with NASA, Alexander again received involved in science during college, after her parents convinced her to major in "something useful" like engineering, rather than journalism, at the University of California, Berkeley, according to The New York Times. From there, she moved on to Earth science & then planetary science. After that, she received a master's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles & then a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

Alexander worked on NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter for many years, controlling the plasma wave instrument & eventually taking over as its final project manager. The mission discovered 21 new moons — Alexander was amazed to find a thin atmosphere on Ganymede, which she had thought was frozen solid — witnessed a comet's destruction in 1994 & revealed Jupiter's atmosphere for the first time before plunging into Jupiter in 2003 to avoid crashing into & contaminating one of Jupiter's moons.

At the time, Alexander told "It's a little sad to be present at the demise of a tremendous spacecraft." But as it fell, she hoped to grab as much data as possible.

Alexander moreover served as U.S. project scientist for the European Space Agency's Rosetta comet mission, a 10-year mission to land a probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The spacecraft gained speed over the course of four planet flybys before entering orbit around the comet in 2014 & beginning to observe the changes it underwent as it approached the sun.

According to The New York Times, Alexander was used to walking between two different cultures as a black woman in a field dominated by white men. Over the course of her life, she moreover served as a bridge between the scientific community & pop culture by talking with the media & spreading a love of science through her fiction writing.

Alexander was named woman of the year by the Association for Women Geoscientists, & received the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering from Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine.

"In my job, I obtain to meet some pretty astonishing people," Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University, said in NASA's statement. "Even in a field of superstars, though, you are often fortunate enough to meet people who stand out as truly exceptional human beings, whom everyone admires & who somehow manages to achieve the work of 10 people effortlessly while making everyone feel excited to be working together & along for the ride.

"Planetary science, the community I have worked with for the last nine years, lost one of those people this weekend," she wrote.

Email Sarah Lewin at or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Photos: Europe's Rosetta Comet Mission in Pictures How the Rosetta Spacecraft Will Land on a Comet (Infographic) Photos of Ganymede, Jupiter's Largest Moon Copyright 2015, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.Claudia AlexanderNASAJupiter

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