The mission recited at the top of each Star Trek episode was clear: To boldly go where no man has gone before. But Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, did much more than that.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with the world of Star Trek recognizes Nichelle Nichols as the communications officer of the starship Enterprise, serving on the bridge alongside Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei) in the original series that aired 1966-1969. At a time when there were vanishingly few Black female faces on prime time television, and none in roles showcasing their dignity, competence, and shared ownership of humanity's future, Nichols inspired millions.
One of the consultants for Star Trek was NASA director of science Jesco Von Puttkamer. Nichols spoke with him about space and NASA, and after the show was no longer on the air and Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, Nichols began writing columns in magazines about the space program and its lack of Black and women astronauts.
In 1977, Nichols was appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute and later was invited to NASA headquarters, just as NASA was looking to expand its pool of talent and diversify. NASA asked Nichols, who had also started a consultant firm, Women in Motion, to help recruit more women and people of color applicants for the astronaut program. In just four months, Nichols was credited with bringing in more than 8,000 applications, of which more than 1,600 were women and more than 1,000 were people of color, reports USA Today.
Among the astronauts who applied and were accepted into the 1978 astronaut program following Nichols' 1977 recruitment campaign were Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Col. Frederick D. Gregory, who would go on to become a NASA deputy administrator, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., who became the first African American in space, Judy Resnik, who was the second American woman in space and Ronald McNair, who was the second African American to fly in space.
Nichols helped make space, the final frontier, available for all people.