Nichelle Nichols' Life in Photos

The Star Trek icon, who died in July 2022 at age 89, made a lasting impact on the entertainment industry — and changed the face of space

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Nichelle Nichols Grows Up in Chicago

Nichelle Nichols

Born outside Chicago on Dec. 28, 1932, Nichelle Nichols was discovered at age 15 by Duke Ellington. The rising starlet worked as a choreographer and dancer for one of his musical numbers, and would go on to tour with the jazz legend, performing as a lead singer and dancer, according to the National Space Society.

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Nichelle Nichols, Rising Star

Nichelle Nichols as Ruana
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty

After the tour wrapped, Nichols moved to Los Angeles, working as a model and actress with roles on the stage and small screen — like in a 1966 episode of the TV series Tarzan.

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Nichelle Nichols' Big Break on Star Trek

Nichelle Nichols

Nichols' big break came when she was cast as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek. When the sci-fi series premiered in 1966, she was one of the first Black women to play a major role with a highly skilled profession on primetime television.

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Nichelle Nichols' Encouragement from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nichelle Nichols
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While she broke barriers onscreen, Nichols' heart was elsewhere. Speaking with The Wall Street Journal in 2011, she admitted she saw Star Trek as "a stepping stone to Broadway" and planned to quit after the first season. However, a chance conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her it was critical she continue in the prominent role, stressing how powerful of an inspiration she was as a Black actress.

Meeting King at a fundraiser, the civil rights leader was introduced to Nichols as her "biggest fan" and wouldn't hear it when she said she was going to sign off from the show.

"We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves," Nichols told WSJ of their conversation.

"It's one of the most important things that happened in my life and it changed and defined my career. I took my role much more seriously after that," she added.

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Nichelle Nichols Covers Ebony

Nichelle Nichols
courteys ebony

The star smiled for her closeup on the January 1967 cover of Ebony magazine. Her coverline teased her as the "most heavenly body in Star Trek."

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Nichelle Nichols' Famous Kiss with William Shatner

Nichelle Nichols

Nichols made television history with costar William Shatner when they shared a kiss during season 3 in 1968. News of the smooch shot around the world as the first interracial on-camera kiss on TV.

The embrace – and Nichols' very presence on the series – signaled to viewers, watching at the height of the Civil Rights conflicts of the 1960s, that Black people had a place of equality in the future.

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The Real-Life Enterprise

nicholette nichols
Space Frontiers/Getty Images

After three seasons, NBC canceled Star Trek in 1969 amid low ratings. However, the sci-fi series sparked what would bloom into a lifelong interest in outer space for Nichols.

In this 1976 photo, the actress stands with costars DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry at the NASA/Rockwell International Space Division center near Los Angeles at the unveiling of the first space shuttle orbiter, Enterprise – named after their Star Trek ship.

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NASA Recruits Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols

In 1977, Nichols teamed up with NASA to amp up their recruitment efforts for their Space Shuttle Program. The program sought scientists, engineers and astronauts, and Nichols was enlisted to help recruit more women and minorities.

On her reaction to the task, she recalled that she told administrators, "I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don't choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it," per Wired.

Over 8,000 applications soon poured in – including Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel to space, and Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., the first Black person to travel to space, USA Today reported.

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NASA Honors Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols

For this important work, Nichols was honored with NASA's Public Service Award in 1984.

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Nichelle Nichols Makes History

Nichelle Nichols
David Livingston/Getty

Nichols made history again in 1991 as the first Black person to mark her handprints and signature in the celebrated concrete outside of the TCL Chinese Theater. Weeks later, she received a star Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Nichelle Nichols' Family


Nichols had one son, Kyle (from her first marriage to Foster Johnson) who in 2019 was embroiled in controversy surrounding her conservatorship.

She later remarried songwriter Duke Mondy, but they divorced in 1972.

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Nichelle Nichols Meets President Obama

Nichelle Nichols

Nichols met then-President Barack Obama at the Oval Office in 2012, and he joined her in flashing the Vulcan salute for the camera.

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Nichelle Nichols' Friendship with Mae Jemison

Nichelle Nichols
Albert L. Ortega/Getty

Another famous fan of Lt. Uhura is Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to go to space.

"As a little girl growing up on the south side of Chicago in the '60s I always knew I was going to be in space," Jemison said in a 2013 speech at Duke, citing Nichols' Star Trek character as her first inspiration to reach for the stars.

In this 2017 photo, the friends attended Nichols' 85th birthday party.

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Nichelle Nichols Soars to Space

Nichelle Nichols
courtesy nasa

Blastoff! The Star Trek alum got a taste of outer space in 2015, taking off with NASA aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

"Flying on SOFIA has many parallels to the starship Enterprise," Nichols said in a statement. "We went where no man or woman has gone before, and I think that's what SOFIA gives us – a tool to study where we want to go in the future. It's magnificent."

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Nichelle Nichols' Emmy Nod

Nichelle Nichols
Sonja Flemming/CBS/Getty

Still lighting up the small screen in her 80s, Nichols was nominated for her first Emmy award in 2017. The star got the nod for outstanding guest performer in a drama series for her role as Lucinda Winters in The Young and the Restless.

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Nichelle Nichols' Story Explored

Nichelle Nichols

Nichols' historic work with NASA's Space Shuttle Program in the '70s and '80s was celebrated with the Paramount documentary Women in Motion, released 2019.

"She changed the face of space," the series' tagline read.

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Nichelle Nichols at Comic-Con

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05: Nichelle Nichols attends Day Three of the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con held at Los Angeles Convention Center on December 5, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
Albert L. Ortega/Getty

The star was all smiles at her most recent L.A. Comic-Con in December 2021. Nichols was also the subject of tribute panels throughout the convention, though she did not make any public statements.

In recent years, her public and professional life has slowed since she was diagnosed with dementia in 2018, and she has also been at the center of a conservatorship battle. However, she was in good spirits at the event, waving to fans and flashing the famous Vulcan salute.

In a moving moment, NASA Astronaut Appearance Specialist Denise Young – who said she too was inspired to pursue a career at the agency after seeing Nichols in Star Trek – bestowed the actress with the space agency's prestigious NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for her four decades of activism in diversifying NASA's ranks.

Nichols rose from her wheelchair to accept the award as the audience gave her a standing ovation.

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Nichelle Nichols Dies

Mike Marsland/Getty.

The actress died in July 2022, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years, Gilbert Bell, confirmed to Variety on July 31. She died in Silver City, New Mexico.

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