Nichelle Nichols was best known for her role as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series. But the actor, who passed away at the age of 89 on July 30, 2022, also carried with her a lesser-known legacy: Playing a foundational role in the formation of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and inspiring generations of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) leaders.
A 2021 documentary titled Woman In Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek, and the Remaking of NASA detailed the powerful, revealing, and uplifting story of Nichols’s advocacy and the crucial part she played in not just bringing diversity to NASA’s astronaut classes but in shaping the American space program we know today.
Though Star Trek was a near-immediate hit, Nichols—who had been a triple threat singer-dancer-actor from a young age—wasn't happy. Frustrated over her diminutive role, which often required her to deliver just a few lines in each episode, Nichols planned on leaving the show to pursue other opportunities. She credits (noted Trekkie) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for convincing her to rethink her decision because of the profound influence she held not only as a Black woman onscreen, but in a role that depicted Black people as an integral part of the future—as far ahead as the 23rd century.
After the series’ cancellation in 1969, Nichols learned of the extreme lack of diversity in America's own space agency and began using her platform to write about it, which caught the attention of NASA. The prevailing sentiment at that time was that the reason there weren't more Black astronauts was because there were no qualified Black candidates, but Nichols was ready to challenge that as more and more people also began to question NASA’s lackluster recruitment efforts.
“The Russians already had women in space. When is America going to put a woman in space? When is America going to put a Black person in space?” Ivor Dawson, founder and president of the Traveling Space Museum, asks in Woman in Motion, referring to the early days of the Space Shuttle Program.
At the time, a test pilot-to-astronaut pipeline resulted in a very homogenous demographic entering NASA’s spaceflight programs: white men who served in the military. But with the planned Space Shuttle Program beginning in 1972, NASA needed to recruit not just pilots but also mission specialists to serve as researchers. Unfortunately, NASA’s track record of recruitment practices had created an atmosphere of severe distrust and antagonism—one that did not welcome anyone who wasn’t of the aforementioned demographic. “When they started looking into the application pile, [NASA] realized that they were dealing with a legacy of historic discrimination,” Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, curator and chair of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, says in the documentary.
So when NASA approached Nichols about aiding with recruitment, she made it clear she wanted to do it on her own terms. She stepped back from her entertainment career to devote all of her time and energy to this massive effort, and NASA awarded a contract to Nichols’s company, Women in Motion, Inc.
“I said [to NASA], ‘I will bring you so many qualified people, you will have no choice. And if I have done my work, and it’s still an all-white male astronaut corps, I will be your worst nightmare,'” Nichols said of her driving motivation.
After convincing NASA that the Space Shuttle Program needed to be more inclusive, Nichols found that she next had to convince the Black community and other people of color that NASA would welcome them. Nichols traveled around the country to visit universities, women’s organizations, and science and engineering organizations for Black, Asian, and Latinx professionals, among many others. While most groups welcomed her, some were skeptical and questioned her efforts in support of an organization that, for so long, had fostered a culture of discrimination. Nichols acknowledged their sentiments and sought to demonstrate that NASA needed their talents to bring about a new era of science and innovation—and that she was leading the charge on changing the space institution.
In just four months, Nichols’s recruitment efforts aided in transforming NASA’s application pool from 1500 to more than 8000 applicants, including 15 times more women and nearly 30 times more minority applicants. The 35-candidate astronaut class that emerged in large part from Nichols’s efforts included six women and three Black men, featuring many now-legendary astronauts Dr. Sally Ride and Dr. Judy Resnik (the first and second American women in space), Dr. Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr. and Dr. Ronald McNair (the first and second African Americans in space), and Ellison Onizuka (the first Asian American in space).
After her wildly successful efforts, Nichols continued to support and advocate for STEM education and has continued to do so until this very day. Nichols also retained close friendships with many of the astronauts she helped recruit, likening her attendance at Space Shuttle launches to “visiting family.” Some of these good friends included Resnik—who tragically died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster along with Onizuka and McNair—and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space and an avid Star Trek fan who credits Nichols for influencing her decision to become an astronaut.
Though Nichols is no longer with us, her legacy will live on in both the lore of American science fiction—and American science at large. In the documentary, when asked how she made the leap from Star Trek to NASA, Nichols explained, “Here I was, involved in projecting a future of what our space program [could be], where it could take us. And I wanted to be there—not in fantasy, not 300 years from the day, but now.”
A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.