There’s been a long love affair between “Star Trek” and NASA. For decades, “Star Trek” actors have interacted with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), from Kelvin “Star Trek” actors (Chris Pine, John Cho and Alice Eve) to Scott Bakula welcoming a NASA return flight. Various astronauts have even had cameos on various “Star Trek” episodes. NASA named one of their shuttles after the famous NCC-1701: Enterprise.
But there’s one “Star Trek” star who’s changed NASA and society as a whole: Nichelle Nichols. The shuttle program owes her a debt of gratitude.
‘Star Trek’ and Nichols Boldly Pushing Boundaries
“Star Trek” and Nichelle Nichols have been pushing boundaries since an episode first aired in 1966.
The bridge was staffed with a diverse crew at a time competent, multicultural actors and characters were rarely seen on television. The Original Series showed an Asian-American man (Hikaru Sulu – George Takei) and an African-American woman (Nyota Uhura – Nichelle Nichols) who helped explore strange new worlds.
Yet, Nichelle Nichols had considered leaving the show. Although Uhura was on regularly, Nichols wanted to be a Broadway star. After Nichols spoke at an NAACP event, a “Star Trek” fan and civil rights leader encouraged her to stay and continue serving on the Enterprise bridge. That Trek fan was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols recalls her conversation; Dr. King said:
“Don’t you realize what your character means on television? What we’re out there marching for, you’re achieving, and (you’re) showing the world it is going to be true because you’re in the 23rd Century. [Star Trek] is the only show Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up late and watch; you’re their hero.”
Nichols helped to break other barriers, too. She and William Shatner (Kirk) famously participated in the first interracial kiss on television. Shatner revels in the scene, saying, he tried to make it so [television broadcasters] couldn’t edit the scene out. “She was a beautiful woman. It was a joy to put my lips up to hers.”
After The Original Series was over, Nichelle Nichols joined the board of governors of the National Space Society. She wrote a speech for an event in D.C., called “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space or Space: What’s in it for me?”
In the speech, Nichols takes NASA to task for its lack of women and minorities. She cited examples of people who were qualified yet rejected by the space program. Nichols desperately wanted to see more diversity in the space program. “Where are my people?” she asked.
Unbeknownst to her, NASA representatives were in the audience sitting in the front row. They agreed it was time for change, but they needed her help.
NASA’s New Mission: Diversity
Armstrong. Aldrin. Glenn. In the 1950s and 1960s, NASA had many famous astronauts boldly going where no man had gone before, but they were white men. They’d been recruited because they were military pilots, willing to put their flight skills and bodies to the test. Yet the age of the Apollo rocket was coming to an end; NASA was already planning the next phase – the space shuttle. Unlike rockets, shuttles could carry more crew and conduct scientific experiments. Instead of needing just people to fly the ship, they needed varying skills. They also needed more astronauts.
It wasn’t just the type of vehicles used by NASA that was evolving; society was changing. The head of NASA – James Fletcher – wanted more diversity in the space program, too. He knew he wasn’t getting the best and brightest by just recruiting Caucasian males.
Fletcher and John Yardley – responsible for NASA’s manned flights – turned to Nichols to get more minorities and women involved.
Nichols: Star Recruiter
According to StarTalk, a podcast with astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nichols said she wasn’t sure how she would help. But still, Nichols agreed, asking for NASA to contract with her company: Woman in Motion.
In 1977, Nichols talked with morning shows, getting them to travel to NASA. She filmed recruitment videos, showing the inside of a new space shuttle prototype aptly named “Enterprise.”
She also began contacting colleges around the country with strong science and engineering programs. The request for them was to recommend people for the space program. Nichols spoke at various science symposiums, waiving all fees, hoping to get more recruits. She even went to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), where Nichols claims no civilian went before. About the military installation, she says, “They were all Trekkers.”
Constantly traveling, she visited various places to help promote NASA while attempting to recruit people across the U.S.
NASA and Nichols delivered on their promise. In 1978, NASA announced new astronauts, included for the first time were minorities and women. She’s credited for helping the following join NASA’s elite ranks:
- Guion Bluford
- Sally Ride
- Judith Resnik
- Ronald McNair
- Fredrick Gregory, NASA Deputy Administrator
- General Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator from 2009 – 2017
- Mae Jemison
The impact was far-reaching. Overall, she’s credited for getting 8,000 recruits to diversify the space program. In the process, she generated good press for the space administration.
Fredrick Gregory, an accomplished astronaut, says Nichols was one of the big reasons he even applied to NASA.
“The first time I met Nichelle Nichols, she was inside my television saying, ‘I want you to be an astronaut. Others may claim she was looking at them, but no, she was looking at me.”
“I think it’s been one of the most remarkable things in my career … that this one character that was a gift to me … became this iconic image and inspired and impacted so many people’s lives in positive ways.”
A Lasting Impact
Nichols’ efforts had a tremendous influence on NASA.
Her efforts don’t end there. She’s continued to support interests in space exploration, including starting the Traveling Space Museum, attending the Kennedy Center in honor of the last shuttle flight, and flying on an aircraft to observe massive star-forming regions as well as determine the history of the solar system on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). In fact, throughout the years, she’s visited the various campuses, lending her support to NASA.
Woman in Motion, released in 2019, is a documentary focusing on her time helping NASA. The name reflects her company hired by NASA, but also who Nichols is – a change agent with a devotion to space, a restless spirit, and relentless will. She tells CNN,
“I don’t have enough sense to keep my mouth shut. Whatever comes up, comes out.”
Trekkies, NASA enthusiasts, people who love science and space, as well as those who support civil rights, can probably all agree: Nichols should never stop talking.
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