In memory of Dr. Claudia Alexander (1957-2015), NASA Rosetta Project Scientist

By Bonnie J. Buratti, NASA Rosetta Project Scientist (2015-present)

It has been over a year since Claudia Alexander passed away, and I still keep asking myself “What would Claudia do”. Dr. Alexander provided the scientific heart and soul for NASA’s team on Rosetta, and her style and level of commitment was a model for anyone aspiring to be a Project Scientist. Claudia liked to dig deep into scientific questions and pull out every subtlety.  She was always convening study groups of like-minded scientists from diverse projects to better understand themes and ideas. Her interests weren’t limited to comets and plasmas: she dived into astrobiology, icy moons, planetary geology, and cosmic dust, among other things.

In Claudia’s memory, Rosetta Project Manager Art Chmielewski, Deputy Project Scientist Mathieu Choukroun, I, and the rest of the Rosetta staff at JPL have tried to keep alive the aspects of the Project that were so important to her. One of them is this blog. Another is a full calendar of popular talks and presence in the public arena. We are encouraging every scientist on Rosetta to give as many public talks as possible.  

One thing I learned about Claudia is that she had to work on acquiring her charisma and gravitas. As one of the few Black children attending school in Santa Clara, Calif., she felt alone and isolated. But by her senior year she was elected student body president and the most likely to succeed.

Dr. Claudia AlexanderClaudia brought so many unique initiatives to Rosetta – the amateur observing program led by Padma Yanamandra-Fisher, and Rosetta’s participation in a month-long science program for elementary students in the Navajo Nation are just two examples.  At Claudia’s funeral, we all became aware of the many aspects of Claudia’s non-scientific life that we didn’t even know about, mainly because she was too modest to ever talk about them. On top of her multiple lives as scientist, children’s book and science fiction author, mentor, and speaker, she was a member of two service groups, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and The Links, a group of 14,000 professional women of color. Her colleagues from The Links came to her funeral all dressed in white to help symbolize the substance and dignity that marked her life. She was a devoted aunt to her four nieces and nephews, and she was a legendary pie-baker (Rhubarb pie was her specialty). Claudia made every moment count.

I miss Claudia’s energy and enthusiasm, her intelligence, and positive outlook on everything. She is missed and remembered, and her legacy will live on.