Editor’s Note, August 1, 2022: On Saturday, July 30, the trailblazing actress Nichelle Nichols died at the age of 89. In 2011, Nichols visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to preview the exhibition “NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration,” and spoke with Smithsonian magazine about her efforts to help the space agency in its recruitment efforts.
In the early 1960s, actress and singer Nichelle Nichols was selected to play the part of Lt. Uhura, the chief communications officer aboard the Starship Enterprise, in the new science fiction television program "Star Trek." Directed by Gene Roddenberry, the show, featuring an interracial cast, would "change the face of television" and the trajectory of Nichols' career. Roddenberry "wanted, demanded and got a totally interracial cast of equals—men and women," Nichols said last week by telephone from her home in California. "It was a breakthrough for television, because it just did not exist."
However, after a successful first season, Nichols tendered her resignation in order to pursue other opportunities. "I grew up in musical theater and my dream was not to be a TV or movie star" she said. "My dream was to be in the ultimate musical theater of Broadway." A chance meeting that weekend with "her biggest fan" changed Nichols' mind.
Invited as a celebrity guest on the dais for an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Nichols was approached by one of the event's promoters.
"He said, Ms. Nichols, there's someone who wants to meet you and he says he's your biggest fan, so I'm thinking of a young kid. I turn around and standing across the room, walking towards me was Dr. Martin Luther King with this big smile on his face."
"By the time he reached me, he was laughing and he said, 'Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.'"
Upon hearing that Nichols planned to leave the show, Dr. King offered her some advice. "He said, 'You cannot leave,' Nichols recalls. "'Don't you see what this man [Roddenberry] has brought? He has changed the face of television forever, unless you leave.'"
According to Nichols, King spoke of television being a powerful tool for change. "'TV is the most powerful education and this man has changed everyone's attitudes towards women and people of color, you cannot leave,'" she recalls Dr. King telling her. "'this is a God-given opportunity to change the face of television, change the way we think. We are no longer second class, third class citizens. He had to do it in the 23rd century, but it’s the 20th century that’s watching.'" The following Monday, Nichols rescinded her resignation and agreed to stay with the show. It was a decision, she said, she does not regret.
In town last month for the opening of the exhibition, "NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration," at the Air and Space Museum and a number of NASA-sponsored events, Nichols shared how her turn as a fictional character aboard a futuristic spaceship helped create real-time opportunities for women and minorities in space.
You attended the opening of the museum's exhibition as a special guest of the curator Bert Ulrich. What were your impressions of the exhibit?
Some of the most wonderful art that I have ever seen. [Done] with such expression and such an intuitive feeling of the majesty of space. Some [were] done [as] very serious, beautiful art and some with a playfulness about it. One that was charming had a little Starship Enterprise on it. It touched your soul, it made you laugh and it made you proud.
How did you become affiliated with NASA and in what capacity?
Ten years after "Star Trek" was cancelled, almost to the day, I was invited to join the board of directors of the newly formed National Space Society. They flew me to Washington and I gave a speech called “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space” or “Space, What’s in it for me?” In [the speech], I’m going where no man or woman dares go. I took NASA on for not including women and I gave some history of the powerful women who had applied and, after five times applying, felt disenfranchised and backed off. [At that time] NASA was having their fifth or sixth recruitment and women and ethnic people [were] staying away in droves.
I was asked to come to headquarters the next day and they wanted me to assist them in persuading women and people of ethnic backgrounds that NASA was serious [about recruiting them]. And I said you’ve got to be joking; I didn’t take them seriously. . . . John Yardley, who I knew from working on a previous project, was in the room and said 'Nichelle, we are serious.'
I said OK. I will do this and I will bring you the most qualified people on the planet, as qualified as anyone you’ve ever had and I will bring them in droves. And if you do not pick a person of color, if you do not pick a woman, if it’s the same old, same old, all-white male astronaut corps, that you’ve done for the last five years, and I’m just another dupe, I will be your worst nightmare.
And what happened?
They picked five women, they picked three African-American men, they picked an Asian and the space program has represented all of us ever since. That is my contribution and that is one of the things I am most proud of.
Are you still involved with NASA?
Yes. I’ve never not been at their request, anytime they call. I’m very, very much involved now because one of my recruits is the administrator of NASA, General Charlie Bolden. I will be his guest, one of the special guests, at the final launch of the last space shuttle next month.
What legacy do you hope to leave? Or hope you’ve left?
I decided, and I’m giving it much thought, I’m not racing into it. But I’ve decided to form the Nichelle Nichols Youth Foundation for Space Sciences—technology, engineering, math and attending performing arts. I want to further careers and interest in young people and bring back the majesty that the United States once held in education. So, for me, that is what I want to give. That is what I want to be known for. That is what I hope is my legacy.