By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Rojek, DMA
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) - She may never have traveled aboard an actual space shuttle, but in the 1960s Nichelle Nichols inspired a generation by boldly going where no African American had gone before.
With the debut of “Star Trek” in 1966, Nichols’ role as Lt. Uhura not only broke racial barriers for African American actresses, but it also motivated future real-world astronauts like Air Force Col. Guion Bluford Jr. and Dr. Mae Jemison.
Born Dec. 28, 1932, in Robbins, Ill., Nichols started in show business in her mid-teens, touring with musicians like Duke Ellington. She continued singing and stage acting as she got older, but also made a few on-screen appearances, including a guest spot on a television series called “The Lieutenant” in 1964. It just so happened that the creator of that show, Gene Rodenberry, remembered her when he began writing a new science-fiction series for television, asking Nichols to take a role in “Star Trek.”
Rodenberry and Nichols created the role of Uhura together and broke the stereotypes placed upon African American actresses. Up until that point, they usually played housekeepers or other subservient roles. Nichols didn’t quite understand the impact of the role until she was thinking about quitting after the first season.
“On a Friday toward the end of the first season, I went into Gene Rodenberry’s office and told him I appreciated the time I had spent with him, but I would like to leave the show to pursue my career in theater and possibly Broadway,” Nichols said. “I really wasn’t interested in television.”
Rodenberry asked her take the weekend to think about her decision. She was still set on leaving the show, until a chance encounter at an NAACP fundraiser the next day.
“One of the promoters came to me as I was sitting down at the dais and said, ‘Excuse me Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who wants to meet you very much; he says he’s your greatest fan,’” she said. “I turned around and stood up and walking toward me was Dr. Martin Luther King with this big smile on his beautiful face.”
After King praised her performance on science-fiction series, Nichols thanked him and said she was going to miss her costars after she left the show. She was stunned by his reply.
“He said, ‘You cannot do that,’” Nichols recalled. “He 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.’”
King went on to say that she had a responsibility to continue with this “God-given gift,” and that she was an important role model for African American women.
“‘Besides,’ he said, ‘this is the only show my wife Loretta and I will allow our little children to stay up late and watch; you’re their hero,’” Nichols recalled.
Because of that conversation, Nichols went into Rodenberry’s the following Monday morning told him what happened. Rodenberry, touched that King understood the vision behind the show and knowing that Nichols understood, too, took out her letter of resignation from his desk. It was torn into a thousand pieces, she said.
“I told Gene if he wanted me to stay, I would,” she said. “And I never looked back and I never regretted it to this day. Because I realized that in just that act, I became part of history, a historic moment. And I’ve always felt responsible to that.”
Nichols continued to play the iconic character for the full three-year run of the original series as well as in six films, a cartoon series and two video games.
King was correct in his assessment. Nichols’ role in the space opera eventually allowed her to take a position at NASA as a recruiter for the astronaut program from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. It started with her appearances at Star Trek conventions, after the show was cancelled in 1969. She started giving speeches about the importance of the U.S. space program and why Americans should support it. But she also spoke out about the lack of women and minorities within the astronaut corps.
Eventually, by the late 1970s, she was invited to join the board of governors of the National Space Society. During the ceremony in Washington, D.C., she delivered a speech entitled “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space or Space: What’s in it for me?” While she thought the speech went over very well, what she didn’t know was that NASA representatives were sitting in the front row. She only found out when they invited her to NASA headquarters for a meeting.
“(NASA officials asked) if I would assist them in a recruitment drive that was underway and recruit the first women and minority astronauts for the shuttle program,” Nichols said. “So I went with a contract for NASA for the next year.
“It was sort of I had to put my money where my mouth was,” she said, laughing. “And it turned out wonderfully well. I was very proud of that.”
And there is much of which she should be proud. Nichols is credited with recruiting Bluford, who was the first African American astronaut, and Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut. Nichols also indirectly recruited Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut, by showing through her television role a brighter future.
“Images show us possibilities,” Jemison said in a 1996 interview with “Stanford Today” when talking about the impact “Star Trek” had on her. “A lot of times, fantasy is what gets us through reality.”
Now 79, Nichols still advocates for both manned and unmanned space travel as well as science, technology, engineering and math education. She sees both as worthy enterprises.
“I’ve been an ardent supporter of our space program and want to see it flourish,” she said. “I think (science, technology, engineering and math) are the areas that will take us farther in space and benefit from it.
“Space is the one endeavor we have engaged in, with so much time and effort, that has given back to humankind the most returnable benefits,” Nichols said. “We have gone forth into research and development, and for every dollar that we’ve spent on space, humankind has benefited many, many, many times over.”
In a month in which the U.S. recognizes the contributions of African Americans to the progress and continued success of the country, people are apt to recall past and present icons; however, only one led the way from the 23rd century. Although the show made its debut almost 50 years ago, the reality Nichols and her castmates showed the world continues to teach people what might be possible.
“The very essence of what Gene Rodenberry originally developed the original ‘Star Trek’ for … is to go where no man or woman has gone before in peaceful exploration,” Nichols said. “And that’s the highest aim that we could attain, to use our minds to better our lives here on Earth through knowing what the rest of the universe is.”