“As we remember and celebrate the life ofNichelle Nichols best known as the ground breaking actress playing Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer in the original Star Trek series. Nichols was instrumental in volunteering her time to promote diversity in recruiting NASA astronaut corps inspiring the advancement of a culture belonging where all the voices are welcomed and honored.Personally, growing up watchingStar Trek, seeing art inspiring science and science inspiring art always showed what could be possible, leading to my career atNASA. Nichelle Nichols was a big part of this inspiration and seeing the reality of the possible.”
Ron Thompson, NASA
Chief Data Officer, and Information, Data, & Analytics Services (IDAS) Director
In 1964, the ambitious new television series Star Trek began filming. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, wanted to paint a picture of life 300 years in the future where men, women, and a diverse swath of people were represented on the ship’s bridge. So, for his communications officer, he chose Nichelle Nichols, whose character they would name Uhura–based on the word uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom. Originally, she auditioned for the role of Spock; Given how much inspiration the Uhura character provided little girls of all races, imagine the impact she could have had as the Enterprise’s logical science officer?
Nichelle Nichols will forever be remembered as the first Black scientist and officer on primetime TV. Before this role, Black women and their contributions to STEM were hidden, like the Wizard behind the curtain. Before the movie, Hidden Figures, and the rise in interest in Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, women and minorities looked to Uhura to show the world that they could be equals in the future of STEM. The symbolism of this characterization changed the trajectory of women in STEM forever. At the Race in Space conference, Astronaut Mae Jemison openly discussed how Uhura’s character in Star Trek drove her to the stars! Seeing a woman as an officer on the bridge of a starship inspired more than Black women; when discussing her career and inspirations, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson (a white woman and the first female launch director) discussed how powerful it was that Nichol embraced the role and “…gave us that roadmap for the future generation of women to follow.”
The Star Trek mission was to explore strange new worlds and to seek new life and new civilizations. Uhura supported this mission by serving as an exo-linguist and communications officer. Today we define Uhura’s role in unraveling language and codes as cryptography. Women have been pioneers in cryptography and cryptoanalysis since the field’s inception and are now receiving recognition for their contributions during WW2. The depiction of a Black woman serving this role during a time when women’s contributions to STEM were marginalized was a testament to how pioneering and brave
Ms. Nichols was. She was willing to be the face for women in STEM and used that fame to advocate for women in STEM.
After her role on Star Trek concluded, Ms. Nichols used her fame and recognition to advocate for a more diverse space program. She received the Ed Dwight Jr. award from Shades of Blue, not for her role on Star Trek but for her work as a NASA recruiter, where she focused her efforts on engaging women and minorities in the space program. In the 1970s and ’80s, NASA saw an explosion of women joining the space program. However, more profound than the immediate excitement about women in space, the diversity shown in Star Trek and tenaciously pursued by Nichols created a ripple effect for space inspiration: young people today are modeling their careers after leaders like Mae Jemison.
Never to dismiss the advances we have made, we as a community are still grappling with what diversity, equity, and inclusion look like in the STEM field and how we can foster excitement for a profession that young women are still struggling to envision themselves in. There are so many conversations about the value of diversity in STEM and how the diversity of perspectives can foster innovation and advancement. Nichols’s depiction of Uhura proves the value of representation and developing a connection with our aspiring scientists and technologists. Jemison and Blackwell- Thompson told us that seeing someone like them gave them the confidence to pursue their dreams.
What can we do as leaders to show the next generation that their contribution matters and that they have a seat on the bridge of the future?
Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT)
Live Long and Prosper