TV star Nichelle Nichols treks to Johnson Space Center

By Laura Rochon

Who would have guessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced Nichelle Nichols to keep her job on the legendary TV series “Star Trek” in the 1960s. Gene Rodenberry cast her for the role of Lt. Uhura, one of the first black female characters on TV. “I was thrilled to be part of something that’s more than a dream—it stood as a beacon of where we are going,” Nichols said. King was a big fan of the show and Nichols’ representation, telling her he only allowed his family to stay up late to watch Star Trek. But when Nichols told him she was about to leave the show, he said, “You can’t.”

Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, has always been a champion of women and minorities at NASA.

She recalls him saying Rodenberry projected a future, which we are watching ... and there are wondrous things out there that we must all be a part of. “He convinced me to stay, and I’ve never looked back,” said Nichols, who has been an advocate of NASA ever since. “I was invited to serve on the board of directors for the National Space Institute.” During a speech on the humanization of space, she said she had the nerve to take NASA to task for there not being women and minorities in the space program. “Next thing I knew, NASA Headquarters asked me to do just that,” Nichols said. “I came onboard to recruit the first women and minority astronauts for the Space Shuttle Program.” Some of those astronauts included Sally Ride, Guion Bluford, Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair. It’s a moment in her life she is understandably proud of. Nichols did radio interviews, outreach and public service announcements such as, “NASA wants a few good men and women like you.” NASA invited her and the entire cast to the rollout of the first Space Shuttle—Enterprise.

The legendary Star Trek cast sees what real space travel is all about at the shuttle Enterprise rollout.

“The grandeur of the vehicle was palpable,” Nichols said. “I felt proud of portraying an astronaut of the future—I wanted to jump inside the shuttle and go with them. Gene, the cast, many people were there—it was a magic moment.” Of the shuttle program, she said, is all about at the shuttle “It’s not just the miracle of the Enterprise rollout. launch to space, it’s what can be gained and learned scientifically. We as a people are natural explorers—we have to know what is beyond the beyond. It’s all about possibilities—I want to express that to young people. We keep evolving.” Nichols visited Johnson Space Center on behalf of the Traveling Space Museum (TSM), which partners with schools to promote space studies. She was joined by TSM Manager Ivor Dawson; Raj Madavilli from former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison’s office; and a TSM protégé, 11-year-old aspiring astronaut Imanee McGee, along with her mother, Niani Price. “And here I am at NASA, back again after all these years, working to instill that same kind of pride in young people to get their education, take advantage of [NASA’s] Summer of Innovation and inform them of programs through the museum that mentor kids in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM),” Nichols said. Nichols said STEM is not just for “eggheads,” but for kids learning to apply themselves, discover what they can be and how much they can do. “They don’t need to become an astronaut—so many careers enhance our space program,” Nichols said. “We need a lot of good minds to build on our space program to continue to be the leader in the world in space exploration and discovery.”

Nichols and Traveling Space Museum protégé Imanee McGee give a Vulcan salute beside astronaut candidate Michael Hopkins (suited).

Before the tour began, Nichols recorded messages for NASA TV that reflect her enthusiasm for NASA while encouraging girls to pursue an education in STEM fields. After the center greeting and JSC medallion presentation by JSC Associate Director (Technical) Milt Heflin, the group was treated to many hands-on experiences: a ride in the motion-based shuttle simulator and Lunar Electric Rover, virtual spacewalks, a tour of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, shuttle and International Space Station mock-ups. At Mission Control, Nichols was welcomed with a full screen photo of Lt. Uhura in both the Station and Shuttle Flight Control Rooms. “That was a special surprise,“ she said. And the USS Enterprise icon appeared on the world map where normally the shuttle or station would be orbiting. Along the tour, waves of employees greeted her, tourists from Space Center Houston clapped and took pictures and many a “Vulcan salute” was seen. Dawson said, “Nichelle’s acknowledgement of the fans created a Hollywood atmosphere at JSC.” Nichols said her visit to JSC was “thrilling, absolutely thrilling,” and mentioned it was an added surprise when different astronauts accompanied the group to each location. Each summer, TSM’s youngest protégé is treated to an out- of-state road trip designed to ignite interest in space. This year, it was McGee’s turn, and she did amazingly well in her quest to become an astronaut. When asked after the tour and quasi training if launching into space was still her career goal, McGee said yes. Dawson said McGee would also like to add “veterinary medicine as her new mission specialty,” and told Jemison she can’t wait to ride into space—along with her dog Fluffy.

Nichols sports a grin while posing in front of the Vestibule Operations Trainer.

Nichols is welcomed with her character’s image on Mission Control’s big screen.