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How ‘Star Trek’ legend Nichelle Nichols helped shape a diverse future for NASA


As the iconic Lt. Uhura, the actress made television history with her portrayal of a 23rd-century communications officer aboard the “Star Trek” USS Enterprise. It was one of the first times a Black woman was cast in a position of power on TV — and it was in a science fiction series, no less.
The result was radical, says Atlanta-area comic book creator and game designer Dedren Snead. “Seeing her as a Black woman on the show … that was … who was that?” Snead tells W. Kamau Bell on Sunday’s “United Shades of America.” “It was just, I never saw Black people in fantasy in that sense.”

A mission from Dr. King

Lt. Uhura may have been a fictional character, but her on-screen authority in a futuristic world held immense influence at a time when Black Americans were fighting for civil rights.

Nichols, who grew up near Chicago and began performing as a teen, had her heart set on Broadway. As the first season drew to a close in 1967, Nichols was ready to move on.

As the story goes, Nichols was at an event when she was told a “Star Trek” fan wanted to meet her. “She’s thinking it’s going to be this pimply-faced kid,” comic book designer Afua Richardson recounts to Bell. “But it turned out to be Martin Luther King Jr. He said, ‘Your show is the only show that I will allow my kids to watch.’ She eventually told him that she was planning on leaving the show, and he gave a command, and he said, ‘No, you cannot leave the show, it is too important.'”

King shared with Nichols how her work was impacting generations of Black Americans who were watching her play a non-stereotypical role. Nichols took King’s words to heart, staying with “Star Trek” through its end in 1969.

“That was the greatest thing,” Nichols told CNN in 2014 of her encounter with the civil rights movement icon. “That was greater than anything else, to be told that by Dr. Martin Luther King, because he was my leader. So I stayed and I never regretted it.”

Recruiting for NASA

By choosing to stay, Nichols didn’t just remain in an influential part. She set in motion a chain of events that would alter the course of history.

The same year “Star Trek” came to a close in 1969, the United States successfully landed two men on the moon. All eyes were on the future of space flight, but the growing field also had a glaring deficiency.

“There were no women, and there were no minorities in the space program — and that’s supposed to represent the whole country?” Nichols told CNN in 2014. She recalled thinking, “Not in this day and age. We just absolutely cannot have that. I can’t be a part of that.”

Enlisted by NASA in the late 1970s, Nichols set out on a new mission to help recruit women and people of color into the space race. “I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position,” Nichols has recalled saying, “that if you don’t choose one … everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it.”
Her work helped bring aboard Guion Bluford, the first African American to go into space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, also points to Nichols as the source of her inspiration.

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

Sheena McKenzie contributed to this report. Watch “United Shades of America” on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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