Claudia J. Alexander was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1959 and grew up in Santa Clara, California. Her parents, Gaynelle and Harold, in her words, blackmailed Claudia into going to UC Berkley for an engineering degree. They would pay for her schooling as long as she worked toward a ‘’useful” degree instead of journalism, which had been her preference. While working an engineering internship with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Dr. Alexander discovered a fascination with planetary science. Discovered “sneaking” into the space building, her employer recognized her aptitude and connected her with a scientist in the Space Science Division. Dr. Alexander graduated in 1983 from Berkley with a degree in geophysics, which she felt would help her in planetary sciences. She received a master’s from UCLA in 1985 in geophysics and space physics, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in space plasma physics.
She spent the entirety of her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. There she was a project manager on the Galileo orbiter mission to Jupiter. During that project she had one of a scientist’s greatest pleasures, finding out she was wrong! Dr. Alexander had spent some time making models that proved that the moon Ganymede was dead, but the data from Galileo showed that the moon actually had an atmosphere, changing our entire understanding of Ganymede! She also oversaw the mission’s terminal dive into Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. She participated in the Cassini mission to Saturn and in NASA’s portion of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Dr. Alexander did not completely abandon here initial interest in writing. Among her many endeavors beyond planetary science, she wrote science-fiction short stories and award-winning children’s books on science. She spent much of her time encouraging youth, especially African-American girls, to pursue careers in STEM fields. As a skilled science communicator, she reached audiences through the Discovery Channel, PBS, NPR, and gave a TEDx Talk on “The Compelling Nature of Locomotion and the Strange Case of Childhood Education.” She also established an undergraduate scholarship in her name at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Alexander died of breast cancer in 2015, ten years after diagnosis, at the age of 56. To honor her legacy the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) recently established the Claudia Alexander Prize to honor mid-career planetary scientists. A major feature of the comet explored by the Rosetta mission was named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor.
“In the annals of history, the athletes and musicians fade, but the ones who make fundamental improvements in humankind’s way of life, and in their understanding of the Universe, live on in their discoveries.” – Dr. Claudia J. Alexander
Feature Image By NASA – Public Domain
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