To Boldly Go Where No (Wo)Man Has Gone Before…

Today’s post was written by Ms. Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

“Space, the final frontier…” these are the words recited at the beginning of every episode of the national treasure that is Star Trek: The Original Series. Widely known to be an inspiration to geeks, nerds, sci-fi buffs and world leaders alike, Star Trek remains an enduring symbol and example of what the future could be for humanity and space exploration. One actress from the show has worked for decades in an effort to recruit women and people of color in order to ensure that Lieutenant Uhura would not be the only black woman in space.

black and white photograph of a group of people including Nichelle Nichols standing in front of a spacecraft
Actress Nichelle Nichols at the Visitor Information Center, John Glen Research Center at Lewis Field (NAID 17468123)

Lt. Uhura was portrayed by Nichelle Nichols from 1966 to 1991. As communications officer on the Starship Enterprise, Uhura was fourth in command on the vessel, highly intelligent, and strong in her own agency. That all of these qualities were portrayed by an African American woman was shocking to home viewing audiences in the 1960s, who were accustomed to seeing them as domestics and subservient characters when they were onscreen. Nichelle Nichols (and Gene Rodenberry’s creation) carried out a mission that sought to normalize black people being intelligent and more than servile domestics.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recognized the positive impact and influence Nichols presence on the TV screen had, and in the late 1970s, hired the actress to recruit women and people of color for the Space Shuttle Program. This partnership led to many appearances, speeches, and personal visits to airfields and other government sites such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), seen in the press release below (from RG 342, Records of US Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations).

black and white photograph of Nichelle Nichols holding a piece of a satellite
Nichelle Nichols holding a piece of a satellite presented by Capt. David Martin at NORAD, 1/6/1977, RG 342

NORAD press release regarding Nichelle Nichols' visit to NORAD

Many astronauts have credited Nichols and the character of Lt. Uhura as an inspiration to them for seeking out opportunities with NASA, including: Ronald McNair, Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and the first African American woman in space – Mae Jemison. Nichelle Nichols continues an alliance with NASA – most recently taking a flight with the flying observatory SOFIA in 2015.

–Live Long and Prosper

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