Nichelle Nichols, Chicagoland Native and Star Trek Actress Who Transformed NASA, Has Died at 89
Actress Nichelle Nichols, 89, passed away Sunday from natural causes, according to a statement from her son. Nichols was best known for her iconic role in the Star Trek series portraying Lt. Uhura, one of the first Black female leads on television.
But, Nichols also played an integral part in helping NASA recruit more women and minorities, a fact many within the space agency mentioned in tributes after her passing.
Nichols was born in the Chicago suburb of Robbins, where her father was mayor. Later the family would move to Woodlawn, where she attended Englewood High School, graduating in 1951. At 15, she began her career in musical theater while still studying in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. In 1964 Nichols appeared on an episode of the TV show The Lieutenant, written and produced by Gene Roddenberry. Impressed by her performance, Roddenberry cast her as Lieutenant Uhura for his new show Star Trek.
At the end of the first season of Star Trek, Nichols considered leaving the show, but Roddenberry asked her to take the weekend off to think about her decision.
That weekend, at an NAACP event, she was introduced to her biggest fan, Dr. Martin Luther King. He told her that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife would allow their children to watch. Nichols then informed him about her decision to leave the show and recounted his response,
You cannot, don’t you see what this man is doing, who has written this? This is the future. He has established us as we should be seen. Three hundred years from now we are here. We are marching, and this is the first step. When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.
‘You turn on your television and the news comes on and you see us marching and peaceful, you see the peaceful civil disobedience, and you see the dogs and see the fire hoses, and we all know they cannot destroy us because we are there in the 23rd Century.
After this conversation, she would remain on Star Trek and reprise her character in six Star Trek movies.
In the mid 70’s, Nichols began working with NASA to help recruit minority and female applicants to the astronaut corps. The program was a success, and NASA named the largest astronaut class to date in 1978 with the first female and minority astronauts. Dr. Sally Ride, Guion Bluford, Dr. Ronald McNair, and Dr. Judith Resnik were all part of Astronaut Group 8.
Many other NASA engineers and future astronauts, including former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, would cite Nichelle Nichols influence on Star Trek as their reason for wanting to become astronauts and work at NASA. Fellow Chicagoans, Mae Jemison and Joan Higginbotham, who both became Shuttle astronauts, spoke multiple times about the importance of representation and Nichols’ role in helping to inspire women of color to apply at NASA.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson released the following statement on the passing of Nichelle Nichols:
Nichelle Nichols was a trailblazing actress, advocate, and dear friend to NASA. At a time when Black women were seldom seen on screen, Nichelle’s portrayal as Nyota Uhura on Star Trek held a mirror up to America that strengthened civil rights.
Nichelle’s advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA. After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.
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I’ve turned a lifetime fascination for space exploration and astronomy into a career writing, speaking, and creating STEM programming about all things space. Until I get the chance to experience space for myself I’ll share the stories of every mission of a lifetime I have the opportunity to witness.
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