How Black Women Have Changed the Face of Spaceflight

From Uhura to Katherine Johnson, learn about Black women’s impact on space travel in this excerpt from “Afrofuturism.”

Nichelle Nichols - Courtesy of NASA.jpeg
When NASA was struggling to recruit minorities and women in 1977, actress Nichelle Nichols formed the company Women in Motion, which NASA contracted to help recruit more than eight thousand people, including some of the first African American, Asian, Latino, and female astronauts. NASA

On September 15, 2021, at age fifty-one, Sian Proctor became the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft, taking the controls of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on its three-day orbital flight. She did so not as a NASA astronaut, but as a member of the four-person crew of the privately funded Inspiration4 mission. Flying in space was a lifelong dream for Proctor, but for much of her life, there were no astronaut role models who looked like her. Indeed, Proctor was already twenty-two years old when Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to fly in space in 1992.

Mae Jemison is an American engineer, physician and NASA astronaut. She became the first black woman to travel in space when she served as an astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. NASA
"Images show us possibilities. A lot of times, fantasy is what gets us through to reality." —Mae Jemison
Before 1992, Black girls and women saw themselves represented more in fictional depictions of spaceflight’s future than in NASA’s spaceflight program. The most celebrated example of a Black woman spacefarer on television and film was Nichelle Nichols’s depiction of Lieutenant Uhura, linguist and communications officer aboard the twenty-third-century starship Enterprise, who first appeared in 1966 on the NBC television series Star Trek. Depicted as a native Swahili speaker from the United States of Africa, her character’s name was derived from the Swahili word for freedom. Nichols had brought a copy of Robert Ruark’s book Uhuru with her when she read for the part and suggested the name Uhura for her character. This wasn’t Nichols’s only contribution to the character—she was as much the author of Uhura as the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry.

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According to Nichols, Roddenberry created the role of Uhura for her, having already gotten to know her on a previous project and through a brief romantic relationship. Although she had Roddenberry’s friendship and respect, Nichols grew frustrated by racism and animosity behind the scenes at Desilu Productions. On set, she saw her lines cut and screentime limited. When the first season wrapped, she decided she would leave the show and return to musical theater. But the weekend after she told Roddenberry she planned to exit, a meeting at an NAACP fundraising event with none other than Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind. King applauded her work, emphasizing to her its value in inspiring young viewers. He told her that Star Trek was one of the few television shows he and his wife Coretta allowed their children to watch. While many other Black characters on television were stereotypes, King told her, Uhura was an unquestioned equal—no less a force than anyone else on the Enterprise. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close,” he pleaded.
Costume designer William Ware Theiss (1931–92) created a short red velour dress with a black scoop neck collar for Nichelle Nichols (1932–2022) to wear as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek (1966–69). The sleek duty uniform features gold braids on the cuffs, indicating Uhura’s rank and the original Starfleet insignia, a gold delta, that Theiss designed. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

During the early years of NASA’s human spaceflight program, equality was decidedly not on display. But recently recovered history has revealed that though women and minorities were not the public face of NASA, employees such as mathematician Katherine Johnson, a Black woman, were critical to the successes of the human spaceflight program, including the Apollo lunar landings. Johnson’s successes, and those of her colleagues, were told in the book (and successful movie of the same name) Hidden Figures. A groundbreaking NASA mathematician, Johnson spent her thirty-three-year career working at Langley Laboratory in Hampton. When the agency hired her as a “computer” in 1953, it had just opened some departments to Black women. Despite working in a segregated environment, Johnson rose through the ranks and performed calculations for some of NASA’s most significant space missions between 1953 and 1986. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her contributions to space travel.

NASA’s culture began to change, thanks in part to Black women working behind the scenes. In 1973, NASA fired and then was forced to rehire Ruth Bates Harris, the first Black woman to hold a senior position at the agency. NASA administrators labeled Harris a “disruptive force” after she authored an internal report decrying the “near total failure” of the agency’s equal opportunity programs. Despite being an early adopter of antidiscrimination policies, the agency’s staff was only 5.6 percent minority and 18 percent women (well below the government averages of 20 and 34 percent, respectively), and little diversity could be found in high civil service positions. As for the astronauts, the report pointed out, “During an entire generation—from 1958 until the end of this decade—NASA will not have had a woman or a minority astronaut in training.”

Firing Harris only brought NASA congressional hearings and bad press, and made the agency look out of touch with a changing nation. Congress ordered NASA to double its equalemployment budget and threatened to closely monitor its equal opportunity hiring and promotion programs. In 1974, Harriett Jenkins took over as NASA’s assistant administrator for equal opportunity programs.

Nichols’s portrayal of a future space explorer brought her into contact with real spaceflight, and she found that many NASA employees were dedicated fans of Star Trek. After hearing NASA scientists speak at Star Trek conventions and touring several NASA facilities as a VIP guest, the actor developed a passion for the agency. Her interest in space and her participation in NASA events earned her a seat on the board of the National Space Institute.

When NASA began recruiting astronauts for its new Space Shuttle program in 1977, the agency was dismayed to see that few women or minorities applied. Jenkins, still leading the equal employment opportunity efforts, and Administrator James Fletcher invited Nichols to meet with them to discuss their recruitment problems. Nichols explained that NASA had a long way to go to convince women and minorities that they were serious about diversifying the astronaut corps. But Nichols was impressed by Jenkins, the first Black administrator she had met, and was convinced the agency was sincere. Nichols proposed that NASA contract her company, Women in Motion, to help with a new publicity campaign aimed at women and people of color. NASA accepted.

When NASA was struggling to recruit minorities and women in 1977, actress Nichelle Nichols formed the company Women in Motion, which NASA contracted to help recruit more than eight thousand people, including some of the first African American, Asian, Latino, and female astronauts. NASA

NASA gave Women in Motion six months to find “the astronauts of tomorrow.” Nichols threw herself into the task: in addition to a media blitz, she traveled the country, spoke at colleges and organizations in every major city, and delivered the message that is was time to change the face of spaceflight. Her work paid dividends. Harris's 1973 plea that the agency "must convince young minorities and women that is not NASA's intention to colonize the universe but that they too will have heroes and heroines in space," was answered in NASA's 1978 astronaut class. Notable astronauts added that year included the first woman to travel to space, Sally Ride; Guion "Guy" Bluford, Jr., the first Black American man to travel to space; and Frederick Gregory, NASA's first Black deputy administrator. Future astronauts Judith Resnik and Mae Jemison credited their careers to Nichols' campaign.

After the 1983 and 1992 flights of Bluford and Jemison, Black American boys and girls—and the country at-large—had new real-life space heroes and heroines. Since then, NASA astronauts Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, and Jessica Watkins, along with Sian Proctor, have joined the ranks of spacefaring Black women—a remarkable, if still short list that offers hope for the future, yet also suggests the need for continued diligence. As Proctor’s example demonstrates, the rise of commercial spaceflight may create even more opportunities for astronauts of all backgrounds.

Afrofuturism is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

"Black Women Change the Face of Spaceflight" by Matthew Shindell excerpted from Afrofuturism © 2023 by Smithsonian Institution