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Nichols Recalls Trek, Meeting With King
February 6, 2012

Nichelle Nichols talks with some of her fans after her presentation at Dryden.Nichelle Nichols talks with some of her fans after her presentation at Dryden. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida)

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 astronaut candidates to apply. 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 tour of Dryden Jan. 10. She also toured the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale.

Following her first year on the television series she told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that she was resigning from her role as Uhura and she intended to return to her first love - Broadway. Roddenberry asked Nichols to reconsider over the weekend.

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 the future, as it showed people of many nations and cultures working 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 said in his introductory remarks that 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. I think the crew of the Enterprise inspired all of us and Lt. Uhura was a part of that special crew," McBride said.

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 seen 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, she 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.

Nichols said 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 helping to 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 gave some examples of qualified people who had applied but were rejected up to five times. NASA was having their fifth or sixth 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 mission and was a key manager for the development of the space shuttles, assured her it was not a joke.

She accepted the request and she succeeded at attracting excellent astronaut candidates. As a result, NASA selected five women, three African-American men and an Asian. Two of her better-known recommendations for recruitment were NASA's current administrator and Jemison.

Bolden flew as pilot or commander on four space shuttle missions and served in a number of 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 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.

Ivor Dawson, president of the Traveling Space Museum educational organization with which Nichols is involved, facilitated Nichols' visit to Dryden. The museum provides hands-on science and space-related educational activities to schools.

Nichols' Uhura inspired. Now her education work encourages people to boldly go and discover their dreams.

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