That weekend, Nichols attended an NAACP fundraiser where a Star Trek fan was particularly eager to speak with her. A reluctant Nichols’ soon found herself standing before Dr. Martin Luther King. His praise was emphatic, hailing Lieutenant Uhura as an empowered role model for African Americans on television, adding that it was the only show he let his children stay up and watch.
To King’s dismay, however, Nichols revealed that she had quit the show, saying that ‘I’m only delivering a line or two, I’m not really using my craft to any great extent’. To which King responded, ‘You don’t understand the effect that you are having, not only on black people, not only on young women but on everybody [...] attitude is changed immeasurably, simply because you are there’.
In one conversation, Nichols saw how important Lieutenant Uhura was in advancing racial equality, ‘so, I stayed, and I never regretted it’.
‘When science fiction became science fact’
In 1975, Nichelle Nichols attended a Star Trek convention in Chicago where she watched a presentation by Jesco von Puttkamer, a charismatic advocate for space flight and NASA’s Director of Science. Nichols was in ‘utter awe’.
However, out of that awe, came a feeling of disenfranchisement. I did not see myself in the present space program. Here I was involved in projecting a future of where our space program could take us, and I wanted to be there. Not in fantasy. Not 300 years from today. But now.
And so, Nichols embarked on a mission of her own: to integrate space. Specifically, to recruit the first woman to travel into space and to integrate the astronaut core, historically an old boys club. Nichols founded Women in Motion, the first STEM education company of its kind, which was then contracted by NASA to help drive recruitment.
Over the course of four months, Nichols underwent a gruelling schedule of engagements to promote the Space Shuttle Program. Nichelle’s personal mission was to persuade young people of colour that NASA needed them. The agency was entering the shuttle era and needed talent. ‘This is your NASA, a space agency embarked on a mission to improve the quality of life on planet Earth’ says Nichols in one campaign video.
Her efforts paid off.
When Nichols started out, NASA only had 100 applications from women and 35 from people of colour after an eight-month period. Four months later, NASA had received 1,649 from women and over 1,000 from members of the global disapora. NASA was so impressed with Nichols’ results that they increased the 1978 class roster from 25 to 35 astronauts.
Among those recruited was the first woman to travel into space, Sally Ride, along with renowned astronauts Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair and Frederick D. Gregory. The first African American woman to travel into space, Dr. Mae Jemison, also credits Nichelle Nichols’ campaign for her decision to become a NASA astronaut, stating that ‘I was very much a Star Trek fan’.
In a moving tribute to Nichols, one of her recruits Frederick Gregory later said:
‘She has and will always be a woman in motion’.
Nichelle Nichols died on 30 July 2022. On 26 August 2022, it was announced that Nichols’ ashes would be launched three million miles beyond the Earth-moon system on a memorial flight later this year.
The mission has been called: Enterprise Flight.