Nichelle Nichols is Back and TSMs got her!
NASA Administrator, General Charles Bolden and Deputy, Lori Garver 'salute' Nichelle. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Duke Ellington discovered her when she was only fifteen. Dr. Martin Luther King once proclaimed that he was her biggest fan! The new NASA Administrator, General Charles Bolden called her a personal mentor. She is universally known and loved but few are aware of one of the greatest achievements of the living legend that is Ms. Nichelle Nichols.
One of Americas best-kept secrets is the story of how Nichelle Nichols personally recruited NASAs first women and ethnic minority astronauts! Although her work with NASA has become the stuff of myth and urban legend, the true story of her one-woman campaign is more fascinating and is one of my favorites.
After years of scolding NASA for not having any women and minority astronauts, NASA gave her company Women in Motion, Inc. a contract to do just that back in 1976. While many within NASA doubted if it could be done, Ms. Nichols spent almost a year appearing on scores of TV and radio shows and visiting countless schools and universities trying to convenience a skeptical public that NASAs minority recruitment drive was "for real." If the doubters were surprised when she appeared in a TV commercial looking for astronaut candidates, they were stunned when NASAs mailroom was flooded with more than 8,000 responses! Her campaign was never a joy ride. Her income would take a hit with her acting career on hold and she was forced to confront the many entrenched fiefdoms within government. When she attempted to recruit within the Pentagon, the military brass said, "dont go there" -- but she did anyway and pulled out a plum, Air Force Col. Frederick Drew Gregory! After six months on the road, even her supporters thought that she would be lucky if she found a single qualified candidate!
NN with Councilpersons, Jan Perry and Bernard Park. Photo courtesy of California Space Authority.
But Nichelle Nichols was not going to settle for a single recruit. Like a super sleuth, she hunted down every possible lead. When she wasn’t working the media, she was screening applicants and then interviewing the leading candidates. Risking everything, she personally pushed the applications of Guy Bluford, Ron McNair and Frederick Gregory. These three would become the first African American astronauts. Ms. Nichols also personally pushed the application of Judith Resnik, who would become the first American Jew in space! That historic recruitment drive would also launch the careers of Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and Shannon Lucid, who would spend almost half a year in space. When all the had dust settled, Nichelle Nichols had found ten who would become astronauts including the first six female astronauts and the first American Asian astronaut, Ellison Onizuka!
Yes, Virginia--it is no myth. It was "Lt. Uhura" from Star Trek who literally changed the face of Americas space program.
NN with TSM President, Ivor Dawson. Photo courtesy of California Space Authority.
The California Space Authoritys "Spotbeam Awards Dinner" --held on November 18th 2009, recognized Ms. Nichols for her contributions to entertainment and also to the US space program. NASA Administrator, General Charles Bolden and Deputy Lori Garver sent greetings via video to Ms. Nichols. General Bolden called Ms. Nichols "an inspiration and a personal mentor." Deputy Graver remembered Ms. Nichols friendship and guidance when she first began as Executive Director of the National Space Society in the mid 1980s. Perhaps it was Ms. Graver who said it best when she summed up the impact that Nichelle Nichols had on NASA and Americas space program. "Nichelle, you are one of the best communicators of the value of the space program," said Graver. "You have always dedicated yourself to communications-- either on Star Ships or with the general public and we would not be where we are today without you!" They then both gave Ms. Nichols the familiar 'Vulcan salute!'
In accepting her "Space Entertainment Award," Nichelle Nichols called on aerospace, academia and the entertainment industries to support her new effort in educating America on the real value that is the US space program. She spoke of a new campaign -working the media, visiting schools and spreading the gospel of more innovative science programs for students and more bold space programs from NASA. "If you wish to join me in my efforts, all you have to do is call," she said. "All hailing frequencies are open!" (You can reach her through me at Ivorstsm@aol.com)
In support of more innovative science programs for students, Ms. Nichols has agreed to serve as a "Celebrity Spokesperson" for the Traveling Space Museum as she travels across the country. Ive agreed to help out as an aide and her space policy advisor.
Nichelle's call to action. Photo courtesy of California Space Authority.
For her pioneering work with NASA, Nichelle Nichols was named a Governor of the prestigious National Space Society and, very quietly, she received NASA’s distinguished Public Service Award. Perhaps, some more national recognition for her work with NASA will come her way in the near future. Luckily for Ms. Nichols, the future is where she spends much of her time!