Mission Possible

As the project manager and project scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Claudia J. Alexander gets to mix business with pleasure. Whether she’s intentionally crashing an unmanned spacecraft into Jupiter or representing the U.S. space program when traveling to Milan, Italy, or Madrid, Spain, it’s all in a day’s work.

Since 2002, Alexander, 47, has served in her current capacity at the 5,000-employee NASA research center, which focuses on unmanned space vehicles. There, Alexander heads up NASA’s contribution to the international Rosetta mission, a European Space Agency-led unmanned space mission launched in 2004 to study the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Alexander believes the Rosetta mission represents this generation’s attempt to explore an entirely new environment. The Rosetta spacecraft, which is set to arrive at the comet in 2014 at a speed of 75,000 miles per hour, consists of two main elements: the Rosetta space probe and the Philae lander. Scientists hope that data from the mission, named after the Rosetta Stone that helped unlock the secrets of ancient Egyptian writing, will help reveal conditions in the primordial solar system, before the planets formed.

“I represent NASA overseas on the Rosetta mission, which is headquartered in the Netherlands,” says Alexander, who began her work on the project in 1998 and has successfully guided the NASA contribution to that mission through some hard financial times, including three cancellation reviews. “Since I became project manager, we’ve been financially stable.”

Alexander served in a similar capacity for the Galileo Millennium mission, in which the spacecraft did an eight-year stint in space, exploring Jupiter and its moons. The unmanned spacecraft — which during its lifespan made the first observation of ammonia clouds in another planet’s atmosphere as well as the first finding of a moon with its own magnetosphere and the first discovery of a satellite around an asteroid — compiled evidence of an ocean under the surface of the moon Europa and observed numerous large thunderstorms on Jupiter. However, it was eventually destroyed in space to avoid any future collisions, had it remained in orbit.

“Because of Jupiter’s gravitational forces, we were unable to get it stabilized and feared that it might crash on Europa, where there may be life,” says Alexander, who was the final project manager on the mission. “So I had great fun crashing it into the planet on purpose!”

While she is at the top her game now, Alexander recognizes the intense scientific research and management aspects of her job can be demanding. “This is a hard profession that requires long hours, a lot of difficult math, and the studying of some very dry papers,” she says. “In the end, it all rebounds into creating the joy of being able to have something of your own to say in the scientific field.”