In 1966, Nichelle Nichols made television history by appearing as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, making her one of the first non-stereotypical characters played by an African-American woman. Another first for Nichols and American television was the interracial kiss between Uhura and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk a couple of years later. Now celebrating the iconic TV series’ 50th anniversary, Nichols (83) remains a powerful pop culture icon herself. That’s a boon for science as well, since Nichols is using her fame to encourage scientific curiosity, just as Star Trek and her character have done for generations of fans.
Uhura, a translator and communications officer who specialized in linguistics, cryptography, and philology, was the daughter of “ambassadors, [one of whom] was a scientist,” says Nichols, who created her character’s background. Nichols, however, was born to a factory worker, who was both the town mayor of Robbins, IL and its chief magistrate, and his wife. Her early career was focused on modeling, singing on tour for Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s bands, and as a theater actress. Nichols almost left Star Trek during its first year on air to pursue her Broadway dreams, but a fateful encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to continue the culturally important and influential role.
It’s a good thing she did, too, for Mae Carol Jemison, a former NASA astronaut who became the first African-American woman to travel in space in 1992; Jemison listed Uhura and Star Trek as inspiration for her interest in space travel. So while Nichols’ performance carried an indirect scientific influence, she soon put her popularity to more hands-on engagement with the scientific community, namely through NASA itself.
After Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969, Nichols volunteered her time with the space agency to help recruit women and minorities. That work led to hiring such talents as the aforementioned Jemison, as well as Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut; United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut; and Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator. Other interactions with NASA over the years include Nichols’ two sub-space flights: She flew aboard NASA’s C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission, and as recently as last year, Nichols took a flight on SOFIA, the space program’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy which studied “the planet’s atmosphere, investigate comets and more.”
“SOFIA does not, sadly, fly into space,” she said. “It’s an airborne observatory, a massive telescope mounted inside a 747 flying as high as is possible. I was on a similar flight, the first airborne observatory, back in 1977. It’s an amazing experience, you get a totally different perspective than from Earth. I do hope someone gets some great pictures.”
Nichols supports the Technology Access Foundation and the Planetary Society. Additionally, Nichols has served on the National Space Society’s Board of Governors since the mid-1980s, and she even has an asteroid named after her! Not a bad career for one of Star Trek’s most famous space scientists!
And now that you know Nichols is one of our Secret Science Nerds, who else would you like us to profile? Let us know in the comments below.
Images: Paramount Television, NASA