“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain’t stopped yet. There’s more exploration to come.”
–Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)
This past summer, the world said goodbye to Nichelle Nichols, the famous actress, activist, and musician who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek franchise. This iconic role was one she popularized in the original series (1966 to 1969), six feature films (1979 to 1991), and multiple television specials. But for those familiar with the life and times of Nichols, her legacy as an activist and inspirational figure are what many will truly remember her for. In honor of her tireless work and advocacy, her family, friends, and fans have come together to launch the Nichelle Nichols Foundation (NNF).
For anyone who grew up in the mid-to-late 20th century, the significance of Nichols’ work and activism is legendary. As part of a popular television series and franchise that first aired during the Civil Rights Era, Nichols became a role model for countless people, inspiring them to follow their dreams and seek professions in space and the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAMs). To carry on in Nichols’ honor, the NNF was created to “serve women and BIPOC (Blacks, Indigenous, People of Color) communities in their educational path to fields within STEAM.”
The goal of the Foundation is to inspire the younger generation to help build the future envisioned by Star Trek and its philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” (IDIC). Universe Today spoke with members of the Nichols family and representatives of the NFF to learn more about the Foundation’s aims and programs and how they will carry on Nichols’ legacy of promoting diversity and breaking down barriers.
“If They Can See It, They Can Be It”
As part of the original Star Trek series, Nichols was one of the first Black women featured in a major network television show. As an officer and member of the bridge crew, Nichols helped portray a future consistent with the dream of the Civil Rights era, where people from all walks of life were treated as equals. But as many fans know, Nichols very nearly left the show to pursue other roles, but stayed after she learned how important her presence on the show was to so many people.
Towards the end of its first season, Nichols was offered a role in a Broadway play, something she preferred to television, and handed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry her resignation. Roddenberry was very reluctant to accept and asked that she take the weekend to think about it, promising that he would oblige her if she felt the same way on Monday. That evening, Nichols attended a banquet hosted by the NAACP, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who claimed to be her “greatest fan”) asked to meet her.
During their conversation, which has become legendary, Nichols told Dr. King that she planned to leave the show. As Nichols would later recount, Dr. King convinced her to stay because of how much he and his family admired her work. According to King, she was a role model to Black children and young women across the country, and her portrayal of Lt. Uhura also influenced White children to view Black people and women as equals. The next day, Nichols approached Roddenberry to tell him she wanted to stay and related her encounter with Dr. King.
According to Nichols, Roddenberry was brought to tears and showed her the resignation letter she had given him (which he had already torn up). As the Nichols family told Universe Today via email:
“The legacy of Nichelle is ‘if they can see it, they can be it.’ Being a woman of color on the bridge of the Enterprise in the 1960s was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for so many young people of color. So many of those young people grew up to be astronauts, engineers, scientists, etc. Our board of advisors is made up entirely of Star Trek fans, who are an example of why representation matters on TV and in the movies.”
Work with NASA
After Star Trek finished its third and final season, Nichols began working with NASA on a special project to recruit women and visible minorities for the space agency. Nichols was central to the launch of this project, serving as the bridge between NASA and Women in Motion (a company she helped run). From 1977 to 2015, Nichols dedicated her time and celebrity to promoting NASA programs and recruiting astronauts of diverse backgrounds. Thanks to her efforts, the astronaut group recruited in 1978 (the “Thirty-Five New Guys”) included six women, three African-Americans, and one Asian-American candidate.
Nichols’ advocacy also led to the recruitment of America’s first female and the first African-American astronaut – Dr. Sally Ride and Col. Guion Bluford. The program also resulted in the recruiting of Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, both of whom flew as part of the Space Shuttle program and died in the Challenger disaster on January 28th, 1986. Other recruits included Major General Charles Bolden, the former NASA administrator (2009 to 2017) and veteran astronaut who flew aboard four shuttle missions, and former deputy administrators Frederick D. Gregory (2002 to 2005) and Lori Garver (2009 to 2013).
From the mid-1980s onward, Nichols served on the board of governors of the National Space Institute (NSI), a nonprofit educational space advocacy organization known as the National Space Society (NSS) today. Beyond recruitment, Nichols was a high-profile guest at NASA centers, helping to increase public engagement in new programs and initiatives. Among them:
- On July 17th, 1976, Nichols was a special guest at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she witnessed the Viking 1 lander make a soft landing on Mars.
- On September 17th, 1976, Nichols and her fellow cast members of the original series were present for the christening of the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the North American Rockwell assembly facility in Palmdale, California.
- On July 14th, 2010, Nichols toured the Space Shuttle Mission Simulator (SSMS) and Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.
- In February 2012, Nichols delivered a keynote speech at the Goddard Spaceflight Center to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Black History Month.
- In 2015, Nichols flew aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observatory, a converted Boeing 747SP. During the eight-hour flight, SOFIA analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn.
In her 2012 keynote address at NASA Goddard, Nichols described what it was like to visit NASA centers, where she always noted a lack of diversity. “I had always been proud of our feats in space,” she said. “But something always bothered me: ‘Where are the women? Where are the people of color?’ Now more than ever, we’re exploring space beyond the ‘beyond.’ I wish I could live forever so I could live to see it because we’re on our way to the 23rd century that [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry gave us… All our posterity will benefit from the growth of NASA.”
Her work with NASA (among her other accomplishments) was the subject of the documentary Woman in Motion.
On December 7th, 2021, Nichols made her final public appearance at the L.A. Comic Con, along with many family members and people she inspired. To honor her, NASA sent several representatives, including NASA Astronaut Appearance Specialist Denise Young, who awarded her the NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal. This medal is awarded to non-Government individuals for making a significant achievement or improvement that contributes to NASA’s overall mission. On July 30th, after learning of her passing, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued the following statement honoring her life and work:
“Nichelle Nichols was a trailblazing actress, advocate, and dear friend to NASA. At a time when Black women were seldom seen on screen, Nichelle’s portrayal as Nyota Uhura on Star Trek held a mirror up to America that strengthened civil rights. Nichelle’s advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA. After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.”
A portion of Nichelle Nichols’ ashes and the DNA of her son (Kyle Johnson) will be transported beyond the Earth-Moon system aboard the Celestis Enterprise Flight, a pathfinder mission that will carry specially manufactured and inscribed individual capsules that contain the cremated remains, DNA samples, and names and messages of well-wishers from around the globe. This payload will be launched aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in early 2023. Once it reaches deep space, it will become the Enterprise Station, the most distant repository of human remains.
In addition to Nichols’ ashes, the Enterprise Flight will include the cremated remains of several members of the original Star Trek series, including actor James Doohan (“Scotty”), DeForest Kelley (“Dr. McCoy”), and show creator Gene Roddenberry, Gene’s wife and Star Trek regular Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and the DNA of their son (Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry). The flight will also carry the ashes of an Apollo-era astronaut and many other people from many walks of life, interests, and vocations. A selection of messages, images, art, music, and other materials will “live long and prosper” in the hostile space environment using Celestis MindFiles™.
This mission will symbolize Nichols’ legacy as her message of inspiration, inclusion, and hope for the future is carried to the stars, where future generations will follow as they achieve the dream of becoming space explorers!
Carrying on the Legacy
The Nichelle Nichols Foundation was unveiled on December 28th, 2022, to coincide with what would have been her 90th birthday. Its Advisory Board is a whose-who of luminaries, fellow cast members, activists, advocates, scientists, and science communicators. This includes actor, producer, and screenwriter Walter “Chekov” Koenig, NASA Solar System Ambassador Dr. Aidyl Gonzalez-Serricchio, Star Trek writer, host, and voice actor Larry Nemecek, science communicator and commercial astronaut Dr. Sian Proctor, scientist, spacesuit designer, and human resilience expert Yvette Gonzalez, and NASA Sagan Fellow and astrobiologist Dr. Michael L. Wong.
The NFF has three major aims that include “Inspiring Creativity,” “Developing Skills,” and “Removing Barriers” for women and BIPOC individuals seeking careers in space and the STEAMs. As noted, these goals will be accomplished through STEAM-themed contests, partner mentorship programs, scholarships, and technical training. They will also host a free virtual speaker series called “Hailing Frequencies Open,” where Nichols and Star Trek fans who have gone on to accomplish great things can connect with young people worldwide.
“We want young people to see a vast array of career possibilities presented by a cross-section of folks who look like them,” said the Nichols family. “While the events will be live, they will also be posted on our YouTube channel.”
The Foundation has partnered with organizations dedicated to promoting diversity and removing barriers. These include Rewriting the Code (RTC), the largest peer-to-peer network for women in tech that offers continuous engagement with tech companies, personal and professional skill development, and mentorship. There’s also Million Girls Moonshot, a San Diego-based nonprofit dedicated to engaging one million more girls in the STEAMs by 2025 through afterschool and summer programs. In the near future, the Foundation will launch its flagship project for the year: the Nichelle Nichols Cadet Space Camp!
Located at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the Space Camp has served as an educational center for NASA, encouraging students of all ages to learn more about space and the STEAM experience. Starting in 2024, the NNF will send a group of young space enthusiasts from around the world there to start their journey toward future careers. These students will work as teams to confront mission scenarios that require dynamic problem-solving and critical thinking, skills that are essential in the workplace of the 21st century. Said the Nichols family:
“We have a couple of our advisors who are graduates of Space Camp. It is life-changing. It will be a full week, and the space camp already has several programs in place. We will partner with them on what programs we want to incorporate, such as teamwork, leadership, confidence building, project management, etc. We can customize based on what is existing or add elements that are unique to our program. How fun would a ‘Star Trek’ mission be to explore a new world and go where no one has gone before?! We are excited to partner with them to create an amazing experience that will create lifelong skills.”
Looking to the Future
Increasing access and greater participation among women and people of color in national science, technology, and innovation systems are consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that world leaders agreed to in 2015. For instance, the fifth goal (SDG5), “Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls,” states:
“Gender bias is undermining our social fabric and devalues all of us. It is not just a human rights issue; it is a tremendous waste of the world’s human potential. By denying women equal rights, we deny half the population a chance to live life at its fullest. Political, economic, and social equality for women will benefit all the world’s citizens. Together we can eradicate prejudice and work for equal rights and respect for all.”
Then there are goals Ten (SDG10) and Sixteen (SDG16) – “Reduce inequality within and among countries” and “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development” – which address racial discrimination and social inequality. The Foundation will also benefit from technological advancements and applications (the internet and social media) that allow for networking and outreach like never before. As the Nichols family explained, there are opportunities in the STEAM fields today that weren’t available when Star Trek first aired.
“So much of what you saw that was science fiction is now science fact. Advances in medicine, technology, science, etc., have grown exponentially. By the time young people graduate from college in 5, 10, or 15 years, there will be opportunities that don’t even exist today. There are shortages today in STEAM careers, and they project even more folks will be needed in the future. By inspiring young people today, we are creating a future workforce across the globe that can meet the growing demands as we continue to advance our knowledge. This knowledge will bring us closer to Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.”
One of the great hallmarks of the current age of space exploration is the way cooperation and inclusion are becoming far more prominent. Whereas the first Space Age was characterized by competition between two superpowers and astronauts, engineers, and administrators who were overwhelmingly white and male, Space Age 2.0 is characterized by growing cooperation between multiple space agencies, the commercial space sector, and increasing representation where astronauts, engineers, scientists, and mission planners and leaders are concerned.
In 2025, as part of the Artemis Program, NASA will land the “first woman and first person of color” on the Moon. These astronauts will be the first to set foot on the lunar surface in over 50 years and will represent a new era of space exploration, one consistent with Star Trek’s philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” As you can plainly see, the dream of Nichelle Nichols and the role she played in the lives of so many carries on today, thanks to the millions she inspired. Because of her, innumerable women and people of color have gone on to pursue careers in the space and STEAM sectors.
In turn, these individuals have become role models to the next generation, who have people they can see themselves in that encourage them to dream, aspire, and achieve!
On January 17th, Harper Collins will release a children’s book titled, To Boldly Go: How Nichelle Nichols and Star Trek Helped Advance Civil Rights. The Foundation will hold an event hosted by Star Trek Prodigy actress Bonnie Gordon to coincide with the book’s release. The speaking engagement will feature author Angela Dalton, illustrator Lauren Semmer, and Foundation advisor Dr. Sian Proctor discussing the impact of Nichelle and Star Trek on the world.
The Foundation will be launching its first “Hailing Frequencies Open” virtual speaking event (titled “To Boldly Go“) on January 21st at 10:00 am PST (01:00 pm EST). Those interested in checking out either or these events (or both) should consult the Foundation’s Youtube channel, where the live streams will be posted. For more information or to learn how to support the Foundation’s activities, click on the links below.