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How a Star Trek Actress Helped NASA’s Most Important Mission

Nichelle Nichols speaking at the 2016 Mad Monster Arizona at the We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Nichelle Nichols speaking at the 2016 Mad Monster Arizona at the We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

This Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space program’s landing on the moon. In honor of the achievement, Citizen Truth will run a series of articles about little known aspects of the Apollo 11 space program all week. 

Nichelle Nichols is best known for playing Lieutenant Uhura on the 1960s Star Trek television series, but few know the beautiful and intelligent star was NASA’s secret weapon.

At a time when most African American actresses were playing roles of servants and maids, Nichols played the role of a fiery and fierce space officer on the Starship Enterprise. Nichols became an incredible role model for African Americans across the nation and across the world.

She was considering leaving the show when Martin Luther King Jr. himself begged her to stay in the role. She did and never regretted it. Nichols even went on to star in six Star Trek movies.

What few Star Trek fans know is that Nichols became a NASA ambassador as the original Star Trek drew to a close after being on air for three years. It was 1969. America had completed the Gemini space program, and although that program had women trainees, only white males would serve as the first astronauts. The same was true for the Apollo astronauts who traveled to the moon.

Nichols was bothered that there were no women and no minorities in the space program, which was supposed to represent the whole United States. Then, NASA enlisted her to recruit the first female and minority astronauts.

Nichols Took up the Role of NASA Ambassador

When NASA first called, Nichols thought it was a joke. She had given a speech in Washington, D.C., promoting the space program. She talked about the importance of American tax dollars being used to “show what mankind can dream of, what mankind can do,” and talked about the American obligation to support human spaceflight and study of the universe.

During the same speech, she criticized NASA’s recruitment efforts “for failing to select qualified women and minority candidates for the astronaut corps.” She told the crowd that NASA rejected some very qualified people up to five times.

NASA officials not only invited her to NASA Headquarters the next day but also asked her to become a recruiter. At first, she said, “You’ve got to be joking; I didn’t take them seriously.”

But NASA wasn’t joking, and neither was Nichols. She traveled across the country recruiting promising astronaut candidates and also made a 1977 recruitment film. She remembers telling NASA: “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.”

Nichelle Nichols Delivers Incredible Recruits

Nichols was true to her promise. Not only did she recruit Charles Bolden, an astronaut who also served as NASA administrator, Nichols also recruited Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut. Nichols said that Ride actually telephoned her to say she was how Ride heard about the space program: “If it hadn’t been for you, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Nichols also recruited Guion Bluford, NASA’s first African American astronaut, as well as Ronald McNair, the second African American astronaut and Judith Resnick, one of the original female astronauts. McNair and Resnick both died in the 1986 Shuttle Challenger accident.

Ride’s generation definitely considered Nichols a celebrity, and she used her celebrity to speak about why women and minorities should get involved. As a girl she remembers being told that girls are not supposed to like science, but she didn’t really listen.

After Star Trek and NASA recruiting, Nichols actually participated in an eight-hour high altitude NASA mission aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory to study the Mars and Saturn atmospheres. At age 86, iconic Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols can truly say she has “gone where no one has gone before.”

Jacqueline Havelka

Jacqueline is a rocket scientist turned writer. She covers health, science and tech news for Citizen Truth. In her first career, she managed experiments & data on the Space Station & Shuttle.

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