Space Sunday special: Nichelle Nichols, First Lady of Space

via NASA / Paramount +

While I have written about the passing of noted individuals involved in astronomy and space exploration in previous Space Sunday articles, this obituary – coming a little later than intended – focuses on the life of a woman who never actually flew in space or worked directly on any space programme, but who nevertheless has a profound impact on the shape of the US space programme from the late 1970s through mid-1980s. who who served as an inspiration for woman and those from diverse ethnic backgrounds to seek careers with NASA, and who sadly passed away on July 30th, 2022

Her name is Nichelle Nichols, known the world over as Lt. Uhura from the original Star Trek TV series and the first six of the franchise’s big screen outings, and this is her story.

Born Grace Dell Nichols on December 28th, 1932 to Samuel Earl Nichols, a factory worker who Lishia (Parks) Nichols, in Robbins, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), where Samuel Nichols served as both the local mayor (1929) and its chief magistrate. From the start, she was determined in her aims: as a youngster, she informed her parents she did not like her given first name and asked them to change it, any they suggested “Nichelle”, which she adopted.

By the age of 16, Nichelle Nichols was singing professionally for Duke Ellington. Credit: Unknown

Studying ballet, dance, music and singing at High School and the Chicago School of Ballet, Nichols landed her first professional gig when just 16, singing in a revue at The College Inn, a well-known Chicago night spot.

It was there that jazz legend Duke Ellington witnessed her performance and he invited her to join his big band as a singer / dancer. This was followed by time with Lionel Hampton’s band, which she joined as a lead singer and dancer.

Nichols’ acting break came in 1959, when she appeared in Porgy and Bess, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Danridge and Pearl Bailey. While she was uncredited in the film, her appearance led to a series of small stage roles, then in 1961 she was cast opposite Burgess Meredith in Oscar Brown’s Kicks and Co, a musical satire poking fun at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.

The show wasn’t a success, closing not long after it opened, but it ran for long enough for a curious Hefner to attend a performance. He was so impressed by Nichol’s stage presence and singing voice, he immediately offered her the chance to sing at his original Playboy Club, which has opened to great success as a nightspot in 1960.

Three years later, Nichols gained her first TV part, a small role in The Lieutenant starring Gary Lockwood (2001 a Space Odyssey) and created by a certain Eugene “Gene” Roddenberry. The episode, entitled To Set It Right, guest-starred Don Marshall (Land of the Giants) and the legendary Dennis Hopper, and dealt with the controversial subject of racism – so controversial in fact that NBC initially refused to air it, a decision that Roddenberry later said helped spur him in his desire to create Star Trek and use the science-fiction format by which to tell morality tales and socially-aware stories without upsetting the network censors.

Nichol’s role in The Lieutenant was small but memorable (and actually led to a short-lived affair with Roddenberry). More particularly, in appearing in the show, she joined a distinguished list of actors who would go on to have an impact on Star Trek, including cast members Majel Barrett (with whom Roddenberry also had an affair before eventually marrying her) Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and Walter Koeing, and guest stars Ricardo Montalban (Khan Noonian Singh from Space Seed and later, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) Paul Comi (Lt. Styles, Balance of Terror), and Lockwood himself (Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell from Where No Man Has Gone Before).

As Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, Nichols became an icon for women and people of colour the world over, and particularly in the Untied States. Her position as a female officer serving on the bridge of a quasi-military vessel (part of an organisation clearly modelled on the US Navy), was unprecedented, while the role itself was one of the first times an African American actress was portrayed a non-stereotypical role on television.

However, thanks to the core focus on the series leads – Shatner and Nimoy – by the end of the first season, Nichols was dissatisfied in having little to do, and on the final day of shooting, Wednesday, February 22nd, 1967, she handed her resignation to creator-producer Roddenberry, stating her intention to take an offer to appear on Broadway. Rather than accept, Roddenberry requested she take time to think about leaving the show some more before making her decision final.

Nichelle Nichols in her iconic and inspirational role of Lt. Uhura in Star Trek. Credit: Paramount – CBS

The following Saturday, February 25th, 1967, Nichols attended an event at the Beverley Hills Hilton in connection with the Nation Institute (although later attributed as an NAACP banquet) at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was to speak. It was an event to go down in history as the first time Dr. King publicly condemned the war in Vietnam. However, for Nichelle Nichols it was memorable for another reason entirely. Ahead of King’s address, she was informed her “greatest fan” wanted to meet her.

I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room and thought whoever the fan was had to wait because there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three children to stay up and watch. When I told he I was leaving the series, he said, ‘you cannot, you cannot! For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers … If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and is not a female role; he can fill it with anybody even an alien.

– Nichelle Nichols, recalling her 1967 meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

So deeply affected by King’s words, Nichols didn’t only return to Start Trek and stay with it through the Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last outing for the entire original series cast, she sought to do more for the people of whom King spoke.

Most notably, she helped found and run Women in Motion, a company that initially produced educational materials using music as a teaching tool and which focused on young women and girls. However, during a visit to a NASA facility, she commented about the lack of apparent diversity among the staff. NASA responded by asking her to help them broaden their recruiting activities, providing a grant to Women in Motion to help with the work.

Nichelle Nichols one one of the two Apollo Mission Operations Control Rooms (MOCR, popularly referred to as “Mission Control”) in 1977. Credit: NASA

As a result, Nichols and WIM released a film in 1977 directly aimed at encouraging young women and people from diverse backgrounds to seek careers and science, engineering and technology – and for those with the requisite qualifications to apply directly to NASA, up to and including the Astronaut Corps. It was the start of a 45-year relationship between the actress and the space agency, in which she performed the roles of recruiter, spokesperson, advocate and supporter.

In part because the of film – launched as a part of NASA’s drive to expand the Astronaut Corps in readiness for the space shuttle – the agency saw a surge in applications for the 1978 Group 8 Astronaut intake, and out of the 35 people finally recruited to join the astronaut programme, six attributed Nichols as either directly recruiting them or in influencing their final decision to apply. They comprise:

  • Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr., NASA’s first fully African American astronaut and a Mission Specialist, who flew on the shuttle four times (STS-8 in 1983; STS-61-A / Spacelab D-1 in 1985; STS-39 in 1991; and STS-53 in 1992).
  • Frederick D. Gregory, NASA’s first African-American space shuttle pilot (STS-51-B, 1985), and first African-American shuttle mission commander (STS-33, 1989, and STS-44, 1991) who later served both as the agency’s Deputy Administrator (2002-2005) and Acting Administrator (2005).
  • Sally Ride, NASA’s first female astronaut. Also a Mission Specialist who flew aboard STS-7 (1983) and STS-41-G (1984), she was also NASA’s first female CapCom (Capsule Communicator), serving in that capacity for the second and third space shuttle flights.
  • Ronald E. McNair, a Mission Specialist who completed his first shuttle mission, STS-41-B in 1984, during which, as an accomplished jazz musician he became the astronaut to play a musical instrument – a saxophone – in orbit (and had been due to become the first musician to record music for release on an album – Jean Michel Jarre’s Rendez-Vous, but fate intervened to present this, in the form of the STS-51-L Challenger disaster).
  • Judith A. Resnik, a Mission Specialist who participated in STS-41-D (1984), and was also aboard STS-51-L in January 1986.
  • Ellison S. Onizuka, a Japanese-American hailing from Hawaii, who first flew aboard the first classified shuttle mission, STS-51-C (1985), and also a member of the STS-51-L crew.
Nichelle Nichols (l) and Dr. Mae Jemison, who became a NASA astronaut as a result of Nichols’ inspiration, on the set of Star Trek: the Next Generation, in which Jemison had a small role as Lt. Palmer. Credit: CBS Television

Other US astronauts recruited into NASA by Nichols include Charles F. Bolden Jr, and Mae Jemison.

Bolden flew missions STS-61-C (1986 – pilot), STS-31 (1990 – pilot), STS-45 (1992 – commander) and STS-60 (1994 – commander), before moving into NASA management, and in 2009 he was appointed NASA Administrator by President Barrack Obama, becoming the first African-American to officially lead the agency as an appointed Administrator, holding the post through until January 2019.

As an engineer and physician, Mae Jemison pursued her science career directly as a result of watching Nichols’ portrayal of Lt. Uhura in Star Trek. For fans of the franchise, she is perhaps the best-known of Nichol’s  NASA “recruits”, because as well as flying aboard STS-47 as a Mission Specialist in 1992, she also emulated the woman who inspired her by appearing and a Starfleet Lieutenant – Lt. Palmer, in the 6th season 6’s Second Chances, of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Away from the glamour of the Astronaut Corps, Nichols did much to encourage diversity right across NASA’s personnel spectrum. For example, she encouraged Lori Garver to join NASA in a management position – she went on to become the agency’s first female Deputy Administrator, and her role as Uhura caused Tracy Drain to pursue a career in engineering before joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she worked on a number of deep-space missions, and rose the the position if deputy chief engineer for the (still on-going) Juno mission to Jupiter. In all, and by their own estimates, during her time working with NASA to increase its personnel diversity in all fields, the agency believes she was responsible for recruiting around 8,000 people into NASA.

In 1984, in recognition of this, Nichols was presented with NASA’s Public Service Award, and she was also asked to serve on the board of governors for the non-profit National Space Institute (now the National Space Society). Even so, whilst no longer directly involved with recruitment, her long association with and support of NASA continued well in the 21st century, and in 2020, it became the subject of a documentary film, Woman In Motion, jointly produced by NASA and Paramount +, and released in 2021.

Nichelle Nichols maintained close ties with NASA and those working at the space agency for 45 years, making many visits to NASA facilities around America. In this 2016 photo, she is with Jet Propulsion Laboratory deputy chief engineer of the Juno Jupiter mission, Tracy Drain, who decided on a career in engineering and science as a direct result of seeing Nichols is Lt. Uhura in Star Trek.

Nor did her influence end there; her activism encouraged both women and people of colour to seek work in television and film – perhaps most famously, Whoopi Goldberg (who would also go on to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation in the reoccurring role of Guinan) -, and in other traditionally male-dominated environments.

Throughout her life – which she wrote about in her autobiography Beyond Uhura – Nichelle Nichols had a positive outlook on the potential for humanity that was a hallmark of the series itself, and she continued to keep touch with the Star Trek fan base the world over by attending conventions through until 2018, when a diagnose of dementia forced her retirement from public life.

A life-long Democrat, she met President Barrack Obama in 2012 in the Oval Office. Following the meeting, she tweeted that Obama admitted to having a crush on her whilst growing up and seeing her on television – and he is a Star Trek fan.

Nichelle Nichols as she appear in Woman In Motion, a NASA / Paramount + film celebrating her contributions to the US space agency. Credit: NASA / Paramount +

During her life, Nichelle Nichols received multiple awards and recognition for her career, her work in space advocacy and science-fiction. In 1982, science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein dedicated his novel Friday to her; in 1992 she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for her contribution to television; in 2010 she was awarded honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College, while in 2016, she received The Life Career Award, from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films – the first woman to receive it; and Asteroid 68410 Nichols is named in her honour.

Nichols was married twice during her life; the first time to dancer Foster Johnson, with whom she had a son, Kyle; the marriage, in 1951, lasted less than a year. She married for the second time in 1968, to Duke Mondy, although they divorced in 1972. She died of heart failure in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 30th, 2022, at the age of 89.

Following the original series of Star Trek, the role of Uhura has been taken over by both Zoe Saldaña  in the thee “Kelvin timeline” movies, and more recently by Celia Rose Gooding in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, both of which give on-screen confirmation of Uhura’s first name: Nyota. However, while these actresses have added new dimensions to the character of Uhura, it is Nichelle Nichols who will be most remembered for creating the role and giving it the power to reach beyond the television and film screen and directly and positive influence people’s lives and outlook – in helping to re-shape NASA’s outlook on recruitment and encouraging diversity in its ranks.

One thought on “Space Sunday special: Nichelle Nichols, First Lady of Space

  1. A lovely tribute, thank you. Nichol had, socially, historically and politically, one of the most powerful yet subtlest impacts on society. Her influence was not militant like some others, yet it stayed entrenched in people’s minds, and touched upon every level of practice in society.

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