As the news spread of the death of Nichelle Nichols, the multi-talented Black actress who so memorably originated Lt. Uhura on Star Trek (NBC, 1966-69), I was moved to reflect on how she shaped not only powerful visions of the future and NASA’s Space Shuttle astronaut corps, but also some early impressions of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s iconic building on the National Mall. In 2011, I was honored to interview Nichols when she was in Washington, DC. As a result, I’m grateful to be able to share some of the stories of her impact in her own words.
Nichols was a key part of the Star Trek cast. Show creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned the bridge crew for the starship Enterprise as including men and women of different races—and even a half alien—all working together. After NBC rejected the first pilot episode (“The Cage”), Roddenberry rethought the show, adding more action and a more diverse crew. The new cast included Nichols, with whom Roddenberry had worked briefly on The Lieutenant (1963-64) for an episode that never aired. Nichols recalled that Roddenberry created the role of Lt. Uhura for her. As she told the story, “He didn’t want just a communications officer. Anyone could do that, could say lines. He wanted to add a dimension to [these] people who go out where no man or woman has gone before. [For them] to be real people, to have other talents. And so Uhura’s [talent] was as a singer. She had a sense of humor. She had a no-nonsense mind.”
Nichols’ place on the bridge had an immediate impact, one that even she did not fully appreciate until a prominent fan convinced her. After the first season, Nichols decided to leave the show to pursue musical theater instead. Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fundraiser in Beverly Hills changed her mind.
When she told Dr. King about her decision to leave the show, she recalled that he said, “‘You cannot do that.… This show is changing the way people see us and see themselves. And the manner in which they’re seeing the world. It’s larger than discrimination.” And he said, “This is the only show that my wife Coretta and I allow our little children to stay up and watch. You’re their hero. They looked up and saw you, and their mouths dropped open. And they know who they can be.” Nichols said that Dr. King continued, “The manner in which you have created your role is essential to that change.… I see young people in what I’m doing all across this country. This show is affecting how they think, how they see [themselves].” After that encounter, Nichols stayed with Star Trek.
Nichols’ Star Trek role led her to become an advocate for real spaceflight too. She recalled hearing NASA engineer Jesco von Puttkamer speak at a Star Trek convention in Chicago in 1975: “The moment I heard him speak, I was hooked.” When she became a National Space Society board member, she gave a speech in which she challenged NASA to, “Come down from your ivory tower of intellectual pursuit, because the next Einstein might have a Black face—and she’s female.” Unbeknownst to her, “the top people [at NASA], the Administrator, James Fletcher at that time, and the head of the astronaut corps,… were in the audience and heard me take NASA to task.”
Nichols’ challenge became the solution to NASA’s recruitment issues. In February 1977, of the 1,500 applications submitted for the Space Shuttle Program astronaut corps, only approximately 30 applications were identifiable as from people of color and only 75 were from women. To rectify the situation, Fletcher hired Nichols to conduct a public relations campaign encouraging talented women and people of color to apply.
Nichols remembered that she pushed to determine whether the agency was serious. “So, I said, if I take this on, and this becomes [real], I’ll be your worst nightmare.…I intend to speak before Congress for this, and to all the newspapers and all the television [stations]… I’m going after PhDs in physics, chemical engineering... And these people, I will not insult by trying to convince them of something that is not possible.” She told Fletcher that if the new class did not include the qualified candidates she recruited, she would protest to Congress. “And Dr. Fletcher stood up, having listened to me, … and said, ‘And we’ll go with you.’”
Wearing a NASA jumpsuit, Nichols made personal appearances and recorded public service announcements. Crisscrossing the country, she appeared at colleges and universities. Some students confronted Nichols with the idea that NASA was using her. She said that she replied, “I know. And I’m using NASA too. But if you don’t apply, then they are right. If you qualify and you really wanted to [apply] and you don’t apply, then they are right.” Ultimately, the 1978 class of astronaut candidates included three African American men, one Asian-American man, and six women, all firsts for the NASA astronaut corps. Several prominent mission specialists, including Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut, directly credited Nichols’ campaign with getting them to consider becoming an astronaut.
In the late 1970s, Nichols also helped to promote the Museum’s new building on the National Mall, which opened on July 1, 1976. In a film co-produced by her company, Woman in Motion, a busload of students visit the Museum. There, one of them encounters Lt. Uhura herself, beaming down to inspect the facility. Nichols both acted in the film and sang a song.
As the Museum works to complete the transformation of that same building, opening eight new galleries this fall that shine light on more diverse stories than ever before, we are grateful for the support that Ms. Nichols gave the Museum when it was still new. And we count ourselves amongst the fans who mourn her loss. Ad astra.