How Nichelle Nichols helped NASA boldly go where it hadn’t before

3 Aug 2022

Nichelle Nichols speaking at a conference in Arizona in 2016. Image: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nichols took part in a recruitment drive for NASA in the 1970s, encouraging women and people of colour to become astronauts.

Tributes have been paid to actor Nichelle Nichols, who died on 30 July. She was famous for her role as Nyota Uhura in Star Trek – but also for the impact she had on inspiring women and people of colour to become astronauts.

Nichols’ role in Star Trek was praised by NASA as one of the first leading recurring black female characters on US TV.

After the show ended, Nichols ended up connecting with NASA officials at Star Trek conventions. According to the 2019 documentary Woman in Motion, which celebrates Nichols’ work, she was asked by the agency to aid in its astronaut recruitment drive for the Space Shuttle programme.

The documentary’s director, Todd Thompson, said on WMFE that NASA was short of astronauts and the agency’s director of science, Jesco von Puttkamer, asked Nichols to get involved.

According to Thompson, Nichols said: “If I do, I want to do it my way. I want to create the Star Trek universe that I portrayed on TV.”

Nichols worked with NASA to bring greater diversity to this programme and starred in a recruitment film which aired in 1977.

The impact of this film appeared quickly. NASA’s next astronaut class included Guy Bluford, the first black American in space, and Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space.

The Woman in Motion documentary says Nichols’ work helped recruit 8,000 individuals to NASA, including the first African American, Asian and Latino men and women to fly in space.

Following her death this week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson described Nichols as a “trailblazing actress, advocate and dear friend to NASA”.

He said that after Apollo 11, Nichols “made it her mission” to inspire women and people of colour to change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos.

“Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission,” Nelson added.

“Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of colour to the moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.”

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Nichelle Nichols speaking at a conference in Arizona in 2016. Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic