Dr. Claudia Alexander, whose career in physics and aeronautical engineering was inspired by the research of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) in circular orbits, would have been excited to learn that NASA announced Thursday the discovery of exoplanet Kepler-452b that is a “close cousin” of Earth, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope.
Alexander, a pioneering Black woman in her field and the last project manager of NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter, died July 11 in Arcadia, Calif., after a decade-long battle with breast cancer, according to her sister Suzanne Alexander. She was 56.
A brilliant scientist, Alexander was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, May 30, 1959, and raised in Santa Clara, Calif. She grew up as the digital age was taking shape in Silicon Valley. Her father, Harold, was a social worker and her mother, Gaynelle Williams, was a librarian who worked for Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel.
Her early inspiration for space exploration and planetary science began when she was around 5 years of age and saw Disney’s “Fantasia.” It fueled her already active imagination about other worlds. She was further pulled toward outer space by Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos.”
By the time she was ready for college, she dreamed of being a journalist and studying at the University of California, Berkeley, but her parents had other plans and insisted that if they had to pay for her education, it would be in something practical and useful, such as engineering. “I hated it,” she said during an interview with the University of Michigan alumni magazine.
She was even more expansive on this matter on the NASA website. “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.”
Later at UCLA, she acquired a master’s in geophysics and space physics and a PhD in atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, specializing in space plasma, from the University of Michigan. “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,” she said on the NASA website.
Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, “Claudia brought a rare combination of skills to her work as a space explorer. Of course, with a doctorate in plasma physics, her technical credentials were solid. But she also 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.”
After joining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she became the project manager of the $1.5 billion Galileo mission, which ended in 2003.
Her next post was at the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Project, where she was responsible for $35 million in instruments to collect data on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, including its temperature.
Few astrophysics possessed her expertise on the evolution of comets, Jupiter and its moons, Venus and plate tectonics, as well as the stream of particles from the sun called solar wind. Alexander was the author of numerous scientific papers and also several children’s books in the “Windows to Adventure” series, “Which of the Mountains Is Greatest of All?” and “Windows to the Morning Star.”
Much like Neil deGrasse Tyson, she was an articulate communicator and reached thousands of people possessing limited knowledge of space exploration and the solar system; this process was aided through her fiction writing.
Among her many awards and citations was being named “Woman of the Year” by the Association of Women Geoscientists. She also received the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research and Engineering from Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine.
Alexander is survived by her sister and her brother David.
“In my job,” Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University, told NASA, “I get to meet some pretty amazing people. 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 and who somehow manages to achieve the work of 10 people effortlessly while making everyone feel excited to be working together and along for the ride.
“Planetary science, the community I have worked with for the last nine years, lost one of those people this weekend.”