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Claudia Alexander
Claudia J. Alexander. (credit: NASA)

Remembering Claudia J. Alexander


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As dear friends and longtime colleagues shared their memories of Dr. Claudia J. Alexander at her recent memorial service in Los Angeles, I felt it might be presumptuous of me to offer my own thoughts. I can claim to have known Dr. Alexander from the assistance she offered to me on an article I wrote on her Galileo mission. The time of our actual acquaintance was one hour.

That’s not as brief as it sounds.

Life was all exploration for her. This was a 56-year mission. She used every second and every heartbeat to gather wonder the way a deep space probe gathers data.

I’ve done plenty of interviews with scientists, business people, engineers, and doctors. In my line we call them SMEs: Subject Matter Experts. In many cases talking with them is a process that takes time and patience, something like panning for gold. You swirl the water in the pan in circles and gently, gradually wash out the mud to get to a few tiny flakes of brilliance. Not so with Claudia Alexander. Her gold was on the surface. She handed it to you in brilliant chunks. It wasn’t just the information she shared. The real wealth of talking to her was her enthusiasm. She had an infinite supply of sheer joy in everything she was trying, every success, and even every setback. She shared it all eagerly and generously. You wondered where she got it. Interviews like that are very rare, because people like that are rare, and you can’t predict it’ll be like that when you make the appointment. You’re glad to have a tape recorder to pick up the data, because talking with them is like interviewing the aurora borealis. What they’re saying is secondary to the simple wonder of what they are.

The interview she gave me on the Jupiter mission didn’t cover her personal life of course, so it’s with a little awe that I see how many other things she did well. I can’t say I’m surprised, though. She baked delicious pies and wrote books to inspire kids and got up in the dark to watch tennis and knitted and dressed up at Halloween; and you have to ask where she could possibly have gotten the time. Then you say, but of course—life was all exploration for her. This was a 56-year mission. She used every second and every heartbeat to gather wonder the way a deep space probe gathers data. I suspect she tasted a rhubarb pie with the same delight she felt as when she looked at a comet: can you believe how great this is?

Dr. Alexander’s luminous portrait smiled back on us throughout the memorial, with the dates of her life: 1959–2015. Those years marked humanity’s first great leap into space. She was born when most rockets failed, a year after Explorer 1 scratched its way into orbit, the year when Luna 3 sent back the first glimpse of the Moon’s far side. We lost her in the year when New Horizons kissed Pluto on the cheek and as we waited and hoped for sunlight to tickle Philae back to life on a comet on arguably her greatest triumph, the Rosetta mission. In the meantime she explored Jupiter while women like her, pioneering women from every corner of America and the world, took their places among the stars.

Is this not an impressive resume all by itself? Claudia Alexander lived at a moment unique in all of human time. Before 1959 the question of why we explore space could be answered only in sketchy terms: the Mallory argument, for example, that we must climb Everest because it’s there; or in terms of some presumed value in geopolitics; or in sci-fi suggestions that some vast treasure lies out there for us to harvest. So there was no answer. She was here in that thin slice of history when the question was still asked and when the answers still needed to be spoken with force and zest. She understood every technical reason, but her first response to the question was in her eyes and her smile—we explore space because reaching out confronts questions that are huge, timeless, and thrilling to ask. We explore space because the first answers we get from glimpsing ancient light and touching distant worlds around us and compel our hunger for more. In just one splendid lifetime in one induplicable moment in all of human history we have grown as a species and looked anew at the universe around us and at our place in it.

From 2015 forward there will never again be a need for an answer. Space is delivering value vaster than anything we expected, and that will only grow, so no one ever need ask again why we do it. Of course we explore space. We’ll never stop. Thank God we still live in the time before all this becomes routine. We still get to say can you believe how great this is?

She got to do it and she got to tell us why we do it. There were just a handful of people in our time with the combination of hands-on technical brilliance and the colossal human empathy that it took to communicate the numbers and the heartbeat, the cool physics, and the hot thrill. She had the engineer’s execution and the magician’s enchantment. She was an ambassador of why we travel into space.

Her legacy to her colleagues is an invitation: no matter how distant the light you detect in your journeys, share what you see with the same gleam she had in her eyes. The machines weren’t her proxies. They were just extensions.

I looked at that lovely portrait again and again during the service and saw the same breathtaking aliveness even in the photo that she shared with me in my single hour of talking with her. That laugh, that wonder, that gleam in her bright eyes; that photo of her captures why we explore space, and it’s her challenge to the subject matter experts now and in the future, to communicate with such contagious joy.

She liked to say that her parents refused to pay for her college tuition unless she gave up the idea of studying humanities and did something useful. It’s good for us all that she was blackmailed this way, because she didn’t need instruction in the poetry of what she did. She knew what T. S. Eliot was getting at when he said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Her legacy to her colleagues is an invitation: no matter how distant the light you detect in your journeys, share what you see with the same gleam she had in her eyes. No matter how faint the echoes you detect from the Big Bang, show us how they sound like her laughter. She picked all that up herself. The machines weren’t her proxies. They were just extensions.

For her this just is a new mission. The findings will be here in good time. The initial telemetry will include the sound of laughter. Listen for it, because it took just an hour for me to understand that Dr. Claudia Alexander was the coolest spacecraft I ever met.


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