New Space and Tech

Ad Astra Nichelle Nichols

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
Keith Cowing
August 1, 2022
Filed under ,
Ad Astra Nichelle Nichols
Woman in motion

Actress Nichelle Nichols has died at the age of 89. To generations of Star Trek fans she was the iconic Lt. Uhura. To others she was a symbol of emergent racial equality who literally burst through multiple glass ceilings. To others she was the inspiration for people who actually became astronauts. Regardless of how you first encountered her, she was – and always will be – memorable in the best of all possible ways. Ad Astra.

This review of the documentary about her life “Woman in Motion” was originally Posted on 28 March 2021.

You know that you have been involved with something beyond living memory when you find yourself telling stories of things that affected the world today to people who never knew how things came to be. That is at the core of “Woman in Motion” – a documentary about the life of actress and activist Nichelle Nichols.
If you are a Star Trek fan then you know who Nichelle Nichols is – she portrayed Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek series half a century ago and has reprised her role multiple times in the decades that followed. What you may not know is that she played a singular role – not only in helping to break down barriers during the civil rights era – but also in the composition of America’s astronaut corps and to some extent how NASA strove towards diversity at all levels. In so doing, NASA became more relevant to more people than it ever had been before.

But again, many of you reading this may not have know this or – if you knew a bit about this – did not realize the extent of her impact. Before she emerged as a star on Star Trek she had a career in other areas of show business. Indeed, she tried to get back to that more than once. When she felt that her role on Star Trek was mostly for show, she was ready to quit until a legendary encounter with Rev. Martin Luther King. He told her that she should stay since she had already become an icon for young women and persons of color. Little did he know – or perhaps he did – that she’d exceed everyone’s expectations with her ‘force of nature’ persona. I can say this at age 65 having lived through those times – two-thirds of which were in the NASA world. You saw her impact. It was hard not to see it.

Everyone in this documentary is telling some stories. So I will too. I have only one Nichelle Nichols story. In April 1981 I was Gov. Jerry Brown’s advance man at the STS-1 launch. I was all of 26. We had a bunch of celebrities in tow – among them was Nichelle Nichols. On the morning of the second launch attempt we were at the hotel boarding our KSC tour bus at 3:00 am to go to the launch site. Everyone was on our bus except Nichelle Nichols. Eventually Jerry asked me if the bus had a P.A. and if so to find him a mic. I did and he bellowed out “Lt. Uhura please board the bus”. Lots of laughter ensued, she clambered up the bus stairs, followed by lots of “beam me up” jokes. In watching this documentary I was pleased to learn that she and I were both at the very first and the very last space shuttle launches.

The story of how she came to be a spokesperson almost happened by accident but she saw an opening and tool it. She says “Long before they hired me if they I said if they let me in the door I will open it so wide that they will see the world. … I had really touched the future by changing the present by just believing and being me.”

The role of NASA scientist Jesco von Puttkamer in the 1978 recruitment effort is featured in this documentary. He was the improbable science geek compatriot to Nichols glamor and style. I suspect that her impact would not have been as pervasive were it not for the efforts of von Puttkamer – who took some career risks by openly embracing this initiative.

As some of you long time NASAWatch readers know I am a Star Trek fan. Over the years via some friends at Paramount – I managed to get Star Trek-themed portraits done – mostly by Mike Okuda – as people left the agency. One of these doctored images in particular got Jesco von Puttkamer’s attention – it was of Sean O’Keefe, sitting alone on the bridge of Picard’s Enterprise, checking for messages on his cellphone.

Years later I got several notes in 2012 from Jesco recounting lots of heretofore details of the whole Star Trek/NASA recruitment story – mostly about how Nichelle Nichols threw her all into the “role” and how lovingly NASA responded. Shortly before he died in 2012, Jesco predicted something to me: “Just wait when we start recruiting for “real” Star-Trek-like exploration – Libration Point, Mars moons and Mars: Applications will sky rocket like the SLS. I kid you not”.

Jesco died a few months later. In 1978 NASA got 8,000 astronaut applications. 12,000 people applied in 2020. Accounting for inflation, so to speak, I don’t think we have met Jesco’s prediction – yet – unless you count the people signing up to ride on commercial vehicles in space. Then I think we are close to where he hoped that we’d all be.

Despite her exuberance and the support of NASA, Nichols did have some rough times in her outreach efforts. Although her TV commercials became very popular and were often aired in prime time as public service announcements, not everyone was glad to see her. A detractor at one university appearance, looking for a way to poke a hole in her enthusiasm, said “NASA is using you Ms. Nichols”. She replied “Yes, and I am using them”. Later, as her efforts came to a close and the astronaut applications were rolling in, she confronted Administrator Fletcher, warning him that if she did not see persons of color or women in the astronaut class that was being selected that she’d file a class action suit and go testify on Capitol Hill. Fletcher and his deputy saiid that they’d go with her if that happened.

Much of the documentary focuses on the recruitment of astronauts, their reaction to being asked, and then selected. “They felt like my children” she said. All things good are possible”. And when Challenger was lost with three of the people she helped recruit she was crushed.

Former astronaut and Deputy NASA Administrator Fred Gregory said the he saw the TV ads with Nichelle Nichols. “And she pointed at me and said I want YOU to join the astronaut program. And immediately I knew that she was talking to me. Other people have claimed that she was talking to them. No. She was talking to me”.

Well, I remember Fred telling me that as I suspect he has told a million people. Without getting into too much detail back in 2002/2003, after the loss of Columbia, I quickly found myself in the middle of an attempt of my own making to recreate the 1977 experience when NASA was soliciting educator/astronaut – but this time to do it on the bridge of NX-01 Enterprise. Long story short, it all fell apart when someone at NASA did not return a call to someone in Hollywood – the moment passed, the window closed, and everyone’s attention drifted elsewhere. Oh well. I really wanted Fred to repeat Nichelle’s words – possibly with her beside him – to hire the next generation of astronauts. But there is still time for NASA to do that.

And of course one cannot help but connect Nichelle Nichols advocacy for women and minorities to join the astronaut corps with the naming of the first space shuttle as “Enterprise” – which is eerily echoed in the opening credits of the TV show “Enterprise.” Carrying the resonance further, astronaut Mae Jemison credits the efforts of Nichelle Nichols in her desire to become an astronaut – eventually becoming the first African American woman in space. Jemison later appeared in an episode of Star Trek. And of course Star Trek fan Barack Obama appointed Charlie Bolden to become the first African American NASA Administrator and later had Nichelle Nichols in to the White House for a visit. These circles all seem to complete themselves with Nichelle Nichols always at the center.

Nichelle Nichols’ impact did not just affect one generation. It lingers and has affected several generations. Anyone paying attention knows that Sen. Corey Booker is a huge Star Trek fan. There are often Star Trek books behind him during interviews. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who often talked about Star Trek’s focus on diversity and inclusion and catching up on Star Trek Discovery during the campaign, famously guest hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live with Patrick Stewart as his guest. PCAST co-Chair Maria Zuber is a fan. During the Biden inauguration cellist Yoyo Mah inserted the Star Trek theme into the beginning of “Amazing Grace” because – why not.

Vice President Harris is reported to be a Star Trek fan as well. But, the stone cold winner is former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Last summer I dialed into a “Trek The Vote” Biden fundraiser with the cast of several Star Trek shows. There was a trivia quiz at one point. Everyone else sort of knew the answers. But I was stunned at Abrams’ performance. She answered every single trivia question without a moment’s hesitation – like it was real history – and has been rather clear that Star Trek had a major influence upon her.

As such, there is certainly a cadre of notable Star Trek fans in and around the Biden Administration – all of whom were directly affected by Nichelle Nichols in one way or another. So perhaps the next big recruitment of astronauts or perhaps a big NASA announcement – can be done from the bridge of starship Enterprise – with Admiral Uhura in the audience.

It was inevitable that NASA would recruit women and minorities into the astronaut program. What Nichelle Nichols did, however, was turbocharge that inevitability with an added excitement that might not have been there. The result was a broader, more exciting, and joyous end result. And she did this not with a heavily funded PR campaign to lobby Congress NASA. Instead, she did it with one voice – at the right time – with the right message. And NASA chose her to be the face of what it wished to become.

This documentary really reaches back and then rushes forward to today. If you really want to understand NASA’s road toward diversity and inclusion you need to watch two films: “Hidden Figures” and “Woman In Motion”.

As Nichelle Nichols notes: “The space program is our future. We have not even begun to begin”.

Highly recommended.

Watch it on iTunes

Directed by Todd Thompson (The Highwaymen, PRE FAB!), the film chronicles how Nichols transformed her sci-fi television stardom into a real-life science career when, in 1977, she embarked on a campaign to bring diversity to NASA. Nichols formed the company Women In Motion, Inc. and recruited more than 8,000 African American, Asian and Latino women and men for the agency. Nichelle and her program continue to influence the younger generation of astronauts as well, including Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut in space. Despite an uphill battle against a bureaucracy that was hesitant to let her get involved, Nichols persevered and is credited by NASA for turning it into one of the most diverse independent agencies in the United States Federal Government.

In addition to Nichols, Woman In Motion features notable celebrities, activists, scientists and astronauts including Neil deGrasse Tyson, George Takei, Pharrell Williams, Martin Luther King III, Al Sharpton, Vivica A. Fox, Walter Koenig, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Guy Bluford, Charles Bolden, Ivor Dawson, Frederik Gregory and Benjamin Crump.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.