The legacy of Nichelle Nichols, star of Star Trek, is one of representation. The beloved actress has died at 89 and leaves behind legions of fans, many — like Stacey Abrams and Barack Obama — who were directly inspired by Lt. Uhura’s presence on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. But, Nichelle Nichols didn’t just pretend to fly in space. In 1977, she put the idealistic notions of Star Trek into real-world action.
Although she changed history on our TV screens, Nichols’ ground-breaking recruitment drive for NASA — in which she brought the first Black and female astronauts into the space program, ever — simply isn’t talked about enough. The recent documentary Woman In Motion, explores not only the life of Nichelle Nichols but specifically, how she was single-handedly responsible for making sure the real-life space program looked more like the diverse future of Star Trek.
For kids with a passion for space history and civil rights, Woman In Motion is a must-watch. It chronicles the early life of Nichelle Nichols, including some of her disappointments on Star Trek: The Original Series in the 1960s. But what makes Woman In Motions so revelatory is what Nichols did in 1977. Dissatisfied with an all-white, all-male astronaut corp, Nichols used her clout with NASA to push for a recruitment drive that specifically encouraged women and people of color to apply. She even threatened to sue NASA if, after her efforts, she still saw a “lily white” group of astronauts flying the space shuttles.
How Nichols got from this hopeful idea to the reality of Guy Bluford, Ron McNair, and Sally Ride joining NASA, is a wonderfully uplifting story, and, at times, a heartbreaking one, too. The journey from aspirational science fiction like Star Trek to real-life progress isn’t always smooth. But, the fact that Nichelle Nichols made this happen, and the face of the space program was forever changed because of her is simply an amazing story and essential history for kids and families everywhere.