Inside The Life, Career, and Achievements Of Nichelle Nichols, The TV Pioneer Who Helped The First Black Woman Get To Space
Photo Credit: Albert L. Ortega

Inside The Life, Career, and Achievements Of Nichelle Nichols, The TV Pioneer Who Helped The First Black Woman Get To Space

Nichelle Nichols has passed away.

The groundbreaking actress, who first came to prominence in the role of “Lt. Uhura” in the “Star Trek” series, succumbed to natural causes at the age of 89 on July 31, 2022.

Her son, Kyle Johnson, issued a statement on his mother’s official website to share the devastating news with fans.

“My mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light, however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration,” he wrote. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all. I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further. Her services will be for family members and the closest of her friends and we request that her and our privacy be respected.”

More than just a life well lived, however, is the legacy she left behind. As our sister site, Blavity has reported, Nichols was honored with the NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal when she made her final Comic-Con appearance in Los Angeles in December. For more than four decades, Nichelle Nichols has been a voice for diversity in STEM programs — and, specifically, in aeronautics and interstellar travel.

After “Star Trek” was canceled, AfroTech previously reported that Nichelle Nichols was hired by NASA to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. You can see the recruitment video below.

Thanks to Nichols’ recruitment video, Dr. Mae Jemison — the first Black woman in space — and Dr. Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — were able to see the universe beyond the confines of Earth, and it’s estimated that nearly 10,000 Black, Latino, and Asian astronauts of both genders have walked through NASA’s doors as a result of the once and forever Uhura.

Nichols, herself, even went into space. As AfroTech also reported, she flew aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory (which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn) and the SOFIA (which was a Boeing 747 that bore a telescope and was owned by NASA).

And that’s just the beginning of her many accomplishments. Let’s take a look at the life, career, and achievements of the pioneering actress Nichelle Nichols.

Early Life And Education

Born Grace Dell Nichols in 1932, Nichelle Nichols was raised in a suburb of Chicago, IL, called Robbins. Her father, Samuel, was a factory worker who was also elected as the town’s mayor. Her mother, Lishia, was a homemaker. After graduating from Englewood High School in the Woodlawn district of Chicago in 1951, Nichols went on to study acting in both New York and Los Angeles.

Career Beginnings And "Star Trek"

Though she was a Broadway veteran — honing her acting chops on the Great White Way in such productions as “Kicks & Co.” and “Porgy and Bess” — Nichols’ “big break” came from her role on “Star Trek,” where she broke ground as “Lt. Uhura” (whose name comes from a Swahili word meaning “freedom”), according to Variety.

Aside from the groundbreaking “interracial kiss” that she shared with William Shatner (who played Capt. Kirk), Uhura’s command was promoted through the years, as well. In the 1979 motion picture, Uhura was promoted to lieutenant commander. By the time “Star Trek III: The Wrath of Khan” came along in 1982, Uhura was a full commander.

The message, then, was clear: Black women belonged in leadership positions, both on Earth and in the Final Frontier.

Legacy

Though Nichelle Nichols has an incomparable acting legacy — especially in the sci-fi community — CNN believes her biggest legacy can be found in the number of Black astronauts that have taken to The Final Frontier in the wake of the airing of the original “Star Trek.”

“Nichols also recognized her importance as an inspiration and role model for young Black people whose dreams of space science and travel were emboldened by her character’s futuristic adventures,” they wrote. “She did promotional work for NASA, including an early public service announcement for the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Enterprise.”