How Nichelle Nichols Changed the Space Program and Recruited Women and Minorities to Work at NASA

The Star Trek actress used her platform to "inspired generations to reach for the stars," the space agency said

Actress Nichelle Nichols photographed outdoors in Calabasa
Photo: Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty

Nichelle Nichols might have been famous for traveling through space in Star Trek, but she also helped a new generation of astronauts with dreams of reaching the real final frontier.

Nichols — who played Lt. Nyota Uhura in the iconic television series — helped NASA recruit some of its first female and minority astronauts, the space agency said in a tweet this weekend after the actress died Saturday at age 89.

"We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible," the tweet read. "She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts and inspired generations to reach for the stars."

On NASA's website, the agency said Nichols appeared in a promotional film meant to inspire women and people of color to apply to become astronauts.

Soon after, Guy Bluford, the first Black American in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, were appointed to NASA's astronaut class of 1978.

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in the STAR TREK episode, "Journey to Babel." Season 2, episode 10 originally broadcast November 17, 1967.
CBS via Getty

"I had always been proud of our feats in space," Nichols said during a speech at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in February 2012. "But something always bothered me: 'Where are the women? Where are the people of color?' "

"Now more than ever, we're exploring space beyond the 'beyond,'" she said during the event. "I wish I could live forever so I could live to see it because we're on our way to the 23rd century that [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry gave us… All our posterity will benefit from the growth of NASA."

"Nichelle Nichols was a trailblazing actress, advocate and dear friend to NASA," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. "At a time when Black women were seldom seen on screen, Nichelle's portrayal as Nyota Uhura on Star Trek held a mirror up to America that strengthened civil rights."

He added: "Nichelle's advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA. After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle's mission is NASA's mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols."

RELATED VIDEO: Nichelle Nichols, Barrier-Breaking Star Trek Actress, Dead at 89

When Star Trek first aired in 1966, Nichols was one of the first Black women to play a major role on primetime television.

She is often cited as having the first interracial kiss on American television when her character famously kissed white leading man William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk.

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Martin Luther King Jr. once called Nichols' role "the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman" in television history.

Nichols was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992, and when the original Star Trek cast was honored in 1991, she became the first African-American to place her handprints and signature in front of Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

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