Nichelle Nichols: The Woman Who Integrated Space

Tizane Navea-Rogers

‘If they let me in the door, I will open it so wide they will see the world’

Born on 28 December 1932, in an era of segregation, Nichelle Nichols broke through to become an acclaimed performer, actress and campaigner, best known for her landmark portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Nichols first worked with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in 1964 on a show called The Lieutenant, which explored themes of racial disparity. Roddenberry, who was regarded as a champion of racial and sexual equality, wanted to reimagine a positive future through television. By creating Star Trek he was able to ‘use science fiction as a metaphor for the realities of the time’, says George Takei who played Hikaru Sulu on the show. When Nichols went to read for a part on Star Trek, she had been carrying the book Uhuru by Robert Ruark. ‘Uhuru’, meaning freedom in Swahili, piqued Roddenberry’s interest. Nichols suggested that the word be softened by changing Uhuru to Uhura. And so, Lieutenant Uhura was born.
Nichelle Nichols: The Woman Who Integrated Space
Nichelle Nichols, NASA

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Uhura was a landmark character in television history. As Chief Communications Officer on The Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura marked one of the first non-subservient roles for a black woman on American television. Despite this, however, Nichelle Nichols became frustrated with Uhura’s limited screen time. ‘Uhura was a new kind of television woman’ said Nichols, and ‘yet it was becoming uncomfortably obvious that whatever ambitious plans Gene had for my character, Uhura’s role was constantly being diminished.’ Wanting to pursue a career in musical theatre, Nichols handed in her resignation to Gene Roddenberry who pleaded with her to take the weekend before making a final decision.
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A chance encounter

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.
Nichelle Nichols: The Woman Who Integrated Space

Tizane Navea-Rogers

Tizane works in the Library and Archive team at The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. She holds a master’s degree in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology MSc from the University of Oxford. In her spare time, she writes about history and books on @thepastpalace.
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