Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols – TV Icon & NASA Recruiter

Nichelle Nichols, most famous for her iconic role as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series, has died at the age of 89.

Nichelle’s son announced her death on Facebook last Sunday morning,

“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and draw inspiration.”

Nichelle was a true pioneer across both the television and space industries. As Lt. Uhura, she pushed boundaries as the first Black actress to be cast in a continuous co-starring role. Not only this, but she featured in US television’s first interracial kiss with William Shatner.

Nichols’ influence spread beyond film and television – she even managed to incorporate her life-long fascination with space travel. She was a passenger on NASA’s C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which conducted an eight-hour high-altitude mission to study the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn. A decade after Star Trek ended, she was even hired by NASA to encourage more women and Black Americans to become astronauts. Check out her 1977 recruitment video.

Many of NASA’s employees referenced Nichols’ performance in Star Trek as their inspiration to join the agency. With her involvement, they went on to recruit Guion Bluford, the first Black American in space, Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

At Nichols’ 85th birthday party, Jemison recounted seeing Lt. Uhura on her television as a child and knowing her dream was within reach,

“How we think about the world is shaped by our fantasies. Star Trek' happened to be a really great fantasy. Nichelle represented the fact that we had inclusion everywhere, and it so much has influenced how people think of a hopeful future. What we have to do today is get back to that."

Following Nichols’ death, Jemison tweeted,

"@NichelleIsUhura is forever for me the embodiment of grace, daring, intelligence, fun, inspiration, beauty, talent & the future. Today I am heart-sad at her passing. I consider our dearest friendship a great treasure & privilege in my life."

Alongside Jamison, Sally Ride thanked Nichols for inspiring her career,

“I think it’s been one of the most remarkable things in my career … that this one character that was a gift to me … became this iconic image and inspired and impacted so many people’s lives in positive ways.”

Nichelle Nichols’ influence will transcend her lifetime. Her performance fuelled a generation’s fascination with space, standing as testament to the countless influences that have shaped the space sector as we know it. She inspired us to strive for more, regardless of social constructs.

In what was still a segregated time, the representation of a Black female on television – a sci-fi series no less – was groundbreaking. Legends like Nichols paved the way for a more sustainable space industry through diversity, inclusion, and inspiration. As she exemplified so perfectly, space really is for everyone. Representation like this is what will continue to drive the sector into the future, allowing it to progress and thrive alongside humanity.

In light of her passing, the world celebrates the life’s work and accomplishments of a true icon.

Image: Nichelle Nichols speaking at the 2013 Phoenix Comicon at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Credit: Gage Skidmore