“Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nichols was hired by NASA in the 1980s to recruit new astronauts

Stefan Andrews
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There is Star Trek euphoria in the air after the September 2017 premiere of the latest series in the franchise, Star Trek: Discovery. Some critics may have expressed doubts over whether Discovery is keeping to the standards set by series forerunners such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. However, there are plenty of reasons why the new series is poised to keep alive the show’s principal idea, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

A fresh Star Trek performer seems to be on the rise, that being Sonequa Martin-Green, the first Africa-American woman to portray the main protagonist. In the past, Sonequa’s chair was filled by Kate Mulgrew, the fiery Captain Janeway on Voyager, as well as Avery Brooks, noted for playing Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

But long before Sonequa Martin-Green, Kate Mulgrew, or Avery Brooks set their phasers on stun, there was one other actress who was destined to push boundaries and break societal and racial stereotypes. If you happen to be a Star Trek fanatic, you might easily guess this person is Nichelle Nichols, who made a name for herself after starring in one of the most popular sci-fi TV shows in American history.

Nichelle Nichols at the 2013 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. Author: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1960s, Nichols played the memorable role of the communication officer on board the U.S.S. Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura, and she was no less significant than any of the other series giants such as Spock, Chekov, or Kirk (played by William Shatner), whom she famously kisses in one of the show’s episodes. Once the original series reached an end in 1969, Nichols continued being part of the Star Trek crew, starring in six movies produced by the franchise.

Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura proved vital in cracking the segregation of television show casting, especially when it came to ethnic minority women who were most of the time given insignificant roles on television. Her casting coincided with the civil-rights movement among African-Americans. As Nichols herself has testified, many things regarding her role may have been different if it wasn’t for civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr.

Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura

Reportedly, after the opening season of the show back in 1966, Nichols at one point considered quitting the show and returning to the theater. But, as 83-year-old Nichelle would relate many years later, Martin Luther King Jr.  convinced her to stay on the show, remarking that he was one of her “biggest fans.” He told Nicols her presence was inspiring to black actresses and actors.  “He said, ‘You really can’t leave’ and I stood there with my mouth open.”

Nichelle Nichols (fourth from the left) in 1976 with most of the cast of Star Trek visiting the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Rockwell International plant at Palmdale, California, USA

Certainly, King was not the sole person on the planet who supported her character. The African-American communication officer on board the U.S.S. Enterprise would inspire plenty more, including the young Whoopi Goldberg, who years later would star as Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Goldberg recalled approaching the series creator Gene Roddenberry as well as executive producer Rick Berman, “I said, ‘Do you not know that, prior to your show, there were no black people in any sci-fi, anywhere?’ ” Explaining why she wanted to appear on The Next Generation, Goldberg told them, “When I was a little girl, it was like, ‘Oh, were are in the future.’ Uhura did that for me. So I want to be on your show.”

Nichols in September 2012 Author: Angela George CC BY-SA 3.0

As it turns out, it was not only the entertainment industry where Nichols left a mark. Outside the world of fiction and back in reality, she was employed by NASA to recruit new candidates who wanted to become astronauts.

Read another story from us: As pioneering TV mogul, Lucille Ball spotted potential of “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables,” and “Mission Impossible”

This chapter of her life would start to unfold in the late 1970s, and last well until the close of the 1980s. Notable names recruited by Nichols include the first NASA African-American in space, Guion Bluford. There was also Sally Ride, the first female American in space. Two recruits of Nichols sadly lost their lives in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986: Ronald McNair and Judith Resnik.

Throughout the Star Trek series, numerous fantastic characters have boldly gone where no one has bone before, Nichelle included. It remains to see what kind of impact Star Trek: Discovery and its crew will bring.