Here’s a great film to make you feel good about where we are all going as a race, the human race. “Woman In Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek, and The Remaking of NASA,” released yesterday, is a close look at the role that Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols played in humanity’s quest for space, and America’s unfinished quest for racial equality, a quest that is more important now than ever. If you’re a fan of “Star Trek”, whether you call yourself a “Trekker” or a “Trekkie,” you know we all believe in a future where everyone on our planet has put racial injustices behind them, a future that holds promise for everyone.
“Star Trek,” which ran on NBC for three seasons starting in 1966, was science fiction to most, but if you look closely, it’s really more science fact than fiction. It predicted so many things we take for granted in our day-to-day life. Do you remember Captain Kirk and his crew on a planet that suspiciously looked like a backlot, flipping open his communicator, instructing Scotty to “beam me up”? We’ve already lived that, it was the flip-phone. Scenes where they fed small plastic squares into the computer? Three-and-a-half inch floppy discs. The little thing that Dr. McCoy waved near a patient to get vital signs? Infrared thermometers, which sadly are a common sight today. The universal translator, a device a crewmember spoke into, which translated what they were saying into a language that could be understood by an alien who didn’t speak English? Google Speak.
There were many other things that Star Trek portended, and mostly it was all because one man, named Gene Roddenberry, had a creative vision. Some other things that translated to real life were a real space-faring vessel named “The Enterprise,” and a space program that had women and BIPOC in space. Wait, what?
That’s right, a show that many view as just some old science-fiction show from the 1960s had one foot in the future, and that’s due in great part to a role played by Nichelle Nichols, more popularly known as Lieutenant Uhura, chief communications officer on The Enterprise. Trying to fulfill his vision of a future where all races on planet Earth had gotten past the struggles of race, religion, wars, famine, and disease, Roddenberry placed Lt. Uhura on the bridge, between the second officer and the ship’s engineer, and he did it to make his point.
For those that aren’t fans of “Trek,” Nichols’ typical line on any given episode were, “Hailing frequencies open, Captain,, a role that started to bore her after a time. Not happy with her one line per episode, she decided that she had had enough, after all, it was just another acting gig, right? There would be others. One day while in makeup, one of the show’s staff told her that he had a fan that wished to meet her. Thinking it to be another nerdy kid, she agreed to see him, and what she got instead was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. To say that she was stunned would be an understatement. Here was the man who was at the forefront of the USA’s struggles for racial equality, telling her how much he loved her role as Uhura.
Nichols confided in Dr. King and told him that she was thinking of quitting the show, telling him that her part was “insignificant”, and nobody would miss her. In what has become TV legend, he implored her to remain on the show, telling her that “Star Trek” was the only show he let his kids watch, and it was because of her presence on the show. There were no other shows that showed a black woman in a position of importance, and Dr. King made her realize the importance of continuing that role, because Black America was watching. He practically ordered her not to quit, so she could continue to inspire.
Not only did Nichols stay on the show throughout its entire run, but she also became another one of those Star Trek predictions that the series had fostered, by recruiting astronauts. That’s right, Lieutenant Uhura actually worked for NASA, in another case of life imitating Trek. Back in 1976, after the USA had finished with its Apollo program, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz, they had decided that the future of space was a reusable shuttle that could navigate space and return successfully home. The first prototype was named “Enterprise,” creating a real link between Roddenbery’s vision and reality, and quite frankly, it separated “Star Trek” from every other science fiction work ever done. In 1977, the cast of “Star Trek” were invited to attend the first-ever viewing of the shuttle “Enterprise,” and it was a ceremony that literally changed the way that the cast and fans felt about their beloved show.
To the surprise of everyone in attendance, the theme from the show was played by the Marine band as the tow motor pulled that shuttle out from the hangar, and it was that very point in time that affected Nichols, and led to her decision to recruit for NASA. “When the band started playing that song, I realized that what I had done was a part of something very special.” says Nichols. She ended up lending her voice to an advertisement that had NASA stating that they were “looking for astronauts.” and subsequently formed her company, Women In Motion, which was formed to try and encourage women and BIPOC to join the space program.
It may have seemed insignificant at the time, but throughout the film, many of the astronauts point to either her campaign or Nichols’ presence in “Star Trek” as a motivating factor for their desire to join. Sally Ride, Christa McAuliffe, and Mae Jemison are three of them that come to mind as pioneering women astronauts, Jemison fulfilling a dream to be the first African-American woman in space. To date, there has been a total of 15 African-Americans in space, and many of them can trace that desire to “go where no one has gone before” to Nichelle Nichols. Overall, Nichols recruited more than 8,000 people into the space program, an amazing feat.
The film is a wonderful look back at the space program that was, and Nichelle Nichols’ pioneering efforts. More information about the film, released by Shout! Factory just yesterday can be found here.