NASA's Claudia Alexander died July 11 at the Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia, at the age of 56, after a decade of battling breast cancer.

Alexander was a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) employee, the final project manager of the Galileo spacecraft mission to Jupiter and was a NASA project scientist in the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

"Claudia brought a rare combination of skills to her work as a space explorer," said NASA's director of the JPL in Pasadena, California, Charles Elachi. He noted that Alexander's doctorate degree in plasma physics reflected her bold technical credentials, but this was also mixed with her ability to specially understand how science affects us all. He also emphasized how important teamwork is to reaching their greatest achievements, and how easy it came to Alexander.

A little after earning her PhD in plasma physics in 1993, Alexander studied plate tectonics and eventually joined JPL. She was a science coordinator for the Galileo's plasma wave instrument which looks at Jupiter's atmosphere. By the final phase of the project, she was named project manager.

In 2000, Alexander joined the Rosetta team as lead US project scientist. The team finally launched its target 15 years later, making the spacecraft the first to orbit a comet's nucleus and, last year, soft land on a comet.

According to NASA, Alexander said that her passion for other worlds was ignited very early when she saw the movie Fantasia at a very young age.

Canada-born Alexander was raised in Santa Clara, California, just near the heart of what would become Silicon Valley. Her drive to find out more about primitive worlds and learn the impact geologic forces may have on life in these other worlds led her to engineering. Her parents said they would only pay for her schooling at the University of California, Berkeley, if she studied something useful. Later on, she landed an internship at NASA-Ames and started sneaking into the space building. Her boss would soon place her with Dr. Ray T. Reynolds from the Space Science Division.

Alexander earned her bachelor's degree in geophysics from Berkeley in 1983, and her masters from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1985.

Alexander was named woman of the year by the Association for Women Geoscientists in 1993. She was a noted African-American woman for standing out in a field dominated by white males.

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