Actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series, signed autographs for Dryden’s Gwen Young, Louise Boyd and scores of other Dryden employees during her visit and tour of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards and the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale Jan. 10. Nichols also recapped her career in acting and in promoting opportunities for women and for minorities before an appreciative audience at Dryden before touring Dryden aircraft and facilities at Edwards and Palmdale in the company of center director David McBride. (NASA / Tom Tschida)
Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols' Warp-Speed Visit to Dryden
Nichelle Nichols has warped to many worlds as Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek television show of the 1960s.
However, her real-life adventures have taken her to where no one has gone before in advocacy for NASA and helping to inspire – and encourage – women and multi-cultural persons to apply to become astronaut candidates. Her influence led to NASA choosing astronauts such as Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space, and current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
Nichols spoke about some of her experiences – including a meeting with civil rights leader Martin Luther King – during a visit to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base Jan. 10. She also toured the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.
Following her first year on the television series she told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that she was resigning from her role as Lt. Uhura and she intended to return to her first love – Broadway. Roddenberry asked Nichols to reconsider.
Fate intervened. While speaking at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, event, civil rights leader Martin Luther King asked to meet Nichols. She was told her biggest fan wanted to meet her and Nichols was astonished to find out it was King.
King, who would have been 83 Jan. 15, was passionate about the importance of Nichols’ role on Star Trek. When she told him of her plan to leave the show, King told her Star Trek had value to people of many nations and cultures, who worked together side by side. Star Trek showed a future where people where judged solely on the content of their character and not by their differences – such a world as King envisioned in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in 1963.
Nichols went to Roddenberry to rescind her resignation and he shed a tear at her retelling of her conversation with King. Roddenberry told Nichols that he was happy that people were seeing what he was trying to achieve with the Star Trek series.
Dryden Center Director David McBride, who accompanied Nichols on her tour of Dryden's Edwards and Palmdale facilities, said he was one of those inspired by the original Star Trek.
"I was influenced watching Star Trek growing up and I think in a big way that led to my career in science and technology," McBride said. "I think the crew of the Enterprise inspired all of us and Lt. Uhura was a part of that special crew."
McBride also spoke about the inspiration the series provided to people seeking careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to develop some of the high-tech items portrayed on the show.
"We are seeing things like electronic readers and wireless communicators. The first place we saw that was on the bridge of the Enterprise and Lt. Uhura was in charge of it (communications)," McBride said.
Since her days as Lt. Uhura, Nichols has been an advocate for NASA’s missions: "That’s what our tax dollars do. These missions show what mankind can dream of, mankind can do," she said, adding that she feels an obligation – and joy – to support human spaceflight and space probes to study the universe.
"NASA belongs to me. We have not only the opportunity, but the duty to keep the space program viable where no man or woman has gone before," she said.
She considers one of her greatest accomplishments to have helped open the door for the first women and multi-cultural candidates to become astronauts.
In a speech in Washington, D.C., Nichols criticized NASA for failing to select qualified women and minority candidates for the astronaut corps and she cited examples of qualified people who had applied but were rejected up to five times. NASA was having its fifth or sixth astronaut candidate recruitment, but women and ethnic minorities felt they were disenfranchised and stopped applying, she said.
NASA officials attending her speech responded by inviting Nichols to NASA Headquarters the next day. They wanted her to assist them in persuading women and people of ethnic backgrounds that NASA was serious about recruiting them. "I said you’ve got to be joking; I didn’t take them seriously," she said.
John Yardley, who was involved in all NASA's manned space flights for almost two decades, directed the teams that built the capsules for the initial Mercury and Gemini missions and was a key manager for the development of the space shuttles, assured her it was no joke.
She accepted the request and her success at getting good candidates of all stripes to apply for astronaut training resulted in NASA’s selection of five women, three African-American men and an Asian. Two of her better-known recommendations for recruitment were Bolden and Jemison.
Bolden flew as pilot or commander on four space shuttle missions and served in a number of other NASA positions before his selection as NASA administrator in 2009.
Jemison's first application to be an astronaut in 1983 was rejected, but after Nichols asked if she still was interested, Jemison applied a second time in 1987 and was chosen. She became the first black woman in space aboard the shuttle Endeavour in September 1992.
Jemison accomplished much professionally, but also has the distinction of being the first real astronaut to have a role in a Star Trek series – she appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Nichols established her own foundation to assist young people in arts and sciences or assist other organizations to provide them a helping hand. Today, she continues to inspire people to boldly go and discover their dreams.
By Jay Levine
Editor, The X-Press
Dryden Flight Research Center
– Nichols' visit to NASA Dryden was facilitated by Ivor Dawson, president of the Traveling Space Museum educational organization with which Nichols is involved. The museum provides hands-on science and space-related educational activities to schools. For more information, visit http://www.travelingspacemuseum.org
Members of the cast and creator of the popular TV show Star Trek attending the rollout of the space shuttle prototype Enterprise at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale in 1976. From left, NASA administrator James Fletcher, DeForest Kelly, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, Gene Rodenberry and Walter Koenig. (NASA photo)