Nichelle Nichols, who blazed a trail for Black actors as Lieutenant Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” never got to go to space while she was alive — but her ashes and her DNA are due to reach the final frontier as early as this year.
The symbolic samples are scheduled to fly beyond the moon, along with the ashes of other dearly departed Star Trek pioneers such as James Doohan (“Scotty”); Majel Barrett Roddenberry (“Nurse Chapel”); the TV series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry; and visual-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.
To top it all off, Nichols’ memorial journey will begin with the launch of a Vulcan rocket. “I’m sure she would have much preferred to go on the shuttle,” said her son, Kyle Johnson, “but this was a pretty close second.”
The “Enterprise” memorial mission is being organized by Houston-based Celestis, which has been making arrangements to fly its customers’ cremated remains for a quarter-century. A gram of Nichols’ ashes, plus DNA samples taken from her and from Johnson, will be among the secondary payloads for United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan Centaur mission, set for no earlier than December.
ULA’s prime directive is to deliver Astrobotic’s robotic Peregrine lander to the lunar surface for a round of scientific experiments, as a prelude to NASA’s crewed Artemis moon missions. But after the Vulcan booster and the Centaur upper stage have done their jobs, the Centaur and its attached payloads will head for an aptly named “graveyard orbit” circling the sun. Those payloads will include more than 150 Celestis capsules containing cremated remains, DNA samples and messages destined to endure in interplanetary space.
The idea of including a tribute to Nichols came up soon after the actress died on July 30 at the age of 89. Johnson said Celestis co-founder Charles Chafer raised the possibility of taking part in the Trek-themed memorial mission.
“I was kind of in a state of shock, alternately crying my eyes out or feeling kind of numb,” Johnson said. “And then we were contacted by Charlie and the crew, and informed of this and invited to participate. The timing could not have been better, and it was a really amazing thing to contemplate.”
Nichols earned her fame as Uhura, the Starship Enterprise’s communications officer, in part because in 1968 she was in on what many consider the first interracial, white-and-Black kiss on a prime-time TV series. (The other kisser was William Shatner, who played Captain James Kirk and went on to take a suborbital space ride last October.)
After Nichols’ stint on the original “Star Trek” ended, NASA enlisted her to encourage women and people of color to join the space agency and apply for astronaut duty. When Nichols passed away, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said her advocacy “transcended television and transformed NASA.”
In a sense, Johnson’s career has paralleled his mother’s. His resume includes work as a recording studio engineer, a general manager for a public-access TV station, a radio talk-show host and a community activist. For the past four years, he has focused on taking care of his mom.
“She was here with me in New Mexico at the time that she passed,” Johnson said.
Chafer said that a whole-genome DNA sample was collected from Nichols’ body before cremation — and that Johnson contributed his own DNA to the mission as well, using a cheek swab.
“Unlike, say, with the cremated remains, where we fly a symbolic portion because of the cost of spaceflight, in the case of DNA we can fly essentially the whole person,” Chafer said.
Who knows? Perhaps millions of years from now, a resurrection tale of Star Trek proportions could play out in interplanetary space. Even if that’s just science fiction, it’d be something fascinating for Spock and Uhura to ponder.
Star Trek fans can post online tributes to Nichelle Nichols and her inspirational legacy (and sign up for email updates from the Nichelle Nichols Foundation) via Celestis’ Enterprise Flight website. Celestis is also offering the opportunity to send names, personal messages and photos on the Enterprise memorial flight through its MindFile program.