Meet Nichelle Nichols, the Black TV Pioneer Who Helped the First Black Woman Get to Space
Photo Credit: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Meet Nichelle Nichols, the Black TV Pioneer Who Helped the First Black Woman Get to Space

It’s no secret that “Star Trek” is a cinematic force in pop culture, and among its long-running franchise is actress Nichelle Nichols. She was the first Black woman to play a high-powered non-stereotypical role on primetime American television, according to The Washington Post. However, not only was she a pioneer in television, but she also trailblazed the final frontier.

Theater and TV Darling

Born in Illinois, Nichols gained her career in acting through her love of theater. She performed in local productions in Chicago and small film roles. Fast forward—she toured with Duke Ellington at the age of 16—Nichols landed the groundbreaking role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. Famously, she admits that Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her not to quit after the first season of the series.

However, her on-screen influence, which ran from 1966 to 1991, reached far beyond the fictional alternate universe.

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in the STAR TREK episode, “Spock’s Brain.” Original airdate, September 20, 1968. Season 3, episode 1. Image is a screen grab. (CBS via Getty Images)

Nichols and NASA

After “Star Trek” was canceled in the late 1980s, Nichelle Nichols was hired by NASA to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. According to a Q&A with Wired, Nichols was ecstatic to become an ambassador and assist in real-life space travel.

“I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don’t choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it,” she said when NASA hired her.

Serving as an inspiration for underserved candidates to join the space program, the legend used her star power in a 1977 recruitment film. In the five-minute clip, she takes viewers on a tour of Johnson Space Center, located near Houston.

During her groundbreaking work with NASA, Nichols recruited Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel to space, and the first woman ever to reach space, Sally Ride, according to Vice.

“Sally was one of my first and biggest achievements. She once thanked me for my recruitment efforts while under contract to NASA, saying ‘If it hadn’t been for you I might not be here.'”

The Beacon Journal says the National Space Institute board member has brought over 8,000 people into the program, including the first African-American, Asian, and Latino men and women to become astronauts.

Woman In Motion

Believe it or not, Nichols herself has been on a mission outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. She flew aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn, The Guardian reports.

In September 2015, she rode alongside five educators aboard NASA’s SOFIA, a telescope-bearing Boeing 747 airplane, Space.com reports.

“Flying on SOFIA has many parallels to the starship Enterprise,” she said in a statement.

Now, at 87-years-old, Nichols’s constant pursuit of The Great Beyond in the arts and space is highly celebrated. In an uplifting documentary — titled “Woman In Motion” — exclusive interviews with Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pharrell, and more fully capture Nichols as one of the most fascinating Black figures in history. 

According to The Root, the feature has been greenlit for world sales at the Cannes Film Festival, which plans to launch a virtual market this June.

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game,” Nichols said in a 2014 interview with CNN. “It’s about where we are and where we’re going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain’t stopped yet. There’s more exploration to come.”