Remembering Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Pioneering Lieutenant Uhura
Actress Nichelle Nichols died this week at the age of 89. She was known to people throughout the galaxy for her role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise. Her casting as a Black woman in a highly skilled, technical position on a major television program in 1966 was crucial representation—and helped many viewers see science and technology careers as something within their grasp as well.
When Nichols considered leaving Star Trek to return to Broadway, a meeting with “her biggest fan”—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—helped convince her to stay on to contribute to the civil rights movement.
Later, Nichols became an ambassador for NASA, working to help recruit people to the space shuttle program, especially women and minorities. In this remembrance, astronaut Leland Melvin helps tell her story, and Tarika Barrett, CEO of the STEM organization Girls Who Code, talks about the importance of role models and representation.
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Leland Melvin is a former NASA astronaut and the author of Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances (Amistad, 2017). He’s based in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Tarika Barrett is the CEO of Girls Who Code, based in New York, New York.
[MUSIC – “STAR TREK THEME”] IRA FLATOW: Actress Nichelle Nichols died this week at the age of 89. People around the galaxy knew her as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer of the Starship Enterprise.
SPOCK: Progress report.
NYOTA UHURA: I’m connecting the bypass circuit now, sir. It should take another half hour.
SPOCK: Speed is essential, Lieutenant.
NYOTA UHURA: Mr. Spock, I haven’t done anything like this in years. If it isn’t done just right, I could blow the entire communications system. It’s very delicate work, sir.
SPOCK: I can think of no one better equipped to handle it, Ms. Uhura. Please proceed.
NYOTA UHURA: Yes, sir. Right away.
IRA FLATOW: She was rarely in the foreground, not one of the show’s big characters, but she was efficient, unflappable, and an equal within the crew. And as a Black woman, when the show aired in 1966, that made a difference. This week, members of the science and engineering community remembered her as a role model.
TARIKA BARRETT: I grew up in the ’70s and certainly watched more than my fair share of television. And to see Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, on the screen was really everything. I was immediately one of those kids that fell in love with science fiction. I would read every book I could get my hands on, watch every show that I could. And this one was absolutely iconic.
And the minute that I saw her, this Black woman starring in the science fiction series, I fell in love. Even if she didn’t have a ton of speaking parts and even if she didn’t have a ton of action, her presence, her poise, the fact that you knew that she had an actual ranking among these folks on the deck, it was everything to see that.
IRA FLATOW: That was Dr. Theresa Barrett, the CEO of the STEM organization, Girls Who Code.
TARIKA BARRETT: Even though I was like, OK, I’m not trying to be a NASA astronaut– I never contemplated that– but the fact that she was doing this thing meant that you really could do anything. There were no boundaries. And at our organization, Girls Who Code, we always say that you can’t be what you can’t see. And Nichelle Nichols embodied that sentiment in every possible way.
IRA FLATOW: Nichelle Nichols as Uhura represented an inclusive future in science, a future where everyone could explore strange new worlds. In 2017, astronaut Leland Melvin told me the story of an encounter when Nichelle Nichols was considering leaving Star Trek after one season to return to a career on Broadway.
LELAND MELVIN: She was going to quit the show and go back to theater and dance. And she gave her resignation. He said, just think about it over the weekend. Over that weekend, she went to an NAACP meeting in LA. And this guy told her that her number one fan was right around the corner. So she walks around the corner, and it’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sitting there like a little kid, looking at his star, his idolized star. And he tells her. He says, Nichelle, you cannot quit this show because you’re doing what I’m trying to do with the Civil Rights movement right now.
IRA FLATOW: So she stayed on the show. Later on, NASA asked Nichols to represent them more overtly, touring the country to help to recruit for the shuttle program.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: Now the shuttle will be taking scientists and engineers, men and women of all races, into space just like the astronaut crew on the Starship Enterprise. So that is why I’m speaking to the whole family of humankind, minorities and women alike. If you qualify and would like to be an astronaut, now is the time. This is your NASA. A space agency embarked on a mission to improve the quality of life on planet Earth right now.
IRA FLATOW: And people listened to the call. Former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden and astronaut Mae Jemison both cited Nichols as an influence. Here’s astronaut Leland Melvin.
LELAND MELVIN: All these people were kind of recruited through her efforts to inspire people that didn’t have white skin and crew cuts.
IRA FLATOW: Back in 1998, Leonard Nimoy, who played the famous half Vulcan, Spock, spoke with me about the influence the program had.
There’s hardly a day or a week goes by where somebody doesn’t say, you influenced my life. I’m either teaching science, or I’m an engineer, or I’m in the space program, or what have you. There are a lot of people in the space program today who are influenced by Star Trek.
IRA FLATOW: And for many, that influence was Lieutenant Uhura. Dr. Tarika Barrett says she still makes a point of saluting Nichols every year.
TARIKA BARRETT: I still wear my Lieutenant Uhura costume every Halloween. And there are folks who are like, shouldn’t you get something new? And that’s true, except for me, I would just wear it with so much pride. And I would make sure that my kids, now teenagers, that they would get how important Lieutenant Uhura was for me.
IRA FLATOW: Remembering Nichelle Nichols, dead at 89. Hailing frequencies closed.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.