At the age of 82, the diversely talented Nichelle Nichols (actress, singer, and dancer) joins a special NASA flight on September 15. While not becoming an astronaut, or flying into space, Ms. Nichols will be one of the “non-essential personnel” aboard SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy). This modified Boeing 747SP aircraft with a 100 inch telescope will spend several hours observing the Universe. What that means is that the researchers aboard are able to observe anything in infrared. Black-holes, stellar births, nebulae, solar systems, and even asteroids are potential viewing subjects. While her role on this flight is unclear, the reasons for her involvement are crystalline.
Since Star Trek: The Original Series Ms. Nichols has worked with NASA and Women in Motion (which she helped run at one point) to encourage women and minorities to pursue Astronomy.
Her efforts were successful. Dr. Sally Ride, the first U.S. female astronaut, was recruited through that program,
as were Dr’s Judith Resnik,
and Ronald McNair, just to name a few.
Sadly both Resnik and McNair were killed during the Challenger explosion on 28 January 1986.
Ms. Nichols was also a special guest, in 1976, at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) to view the soft landing of Viking 1 on Mars. She flew on NASA’s C141 Astronomy Observatory, which examined the atmospheres of both Mars and Saturn over an 8 hour mission.
Joined by fellow Star Trek: TOS cast members, she attended the christening of the very first space shuttle-aptly named Enterprise.
It is obvious that Ms. Nichols has a long history of working with and supporting NASA, Astronomy, and the involvement of women and minorities.
When Star Trek first appeared on television in the late 1960’s, Lt Uhura was one of the first African-American women who was not a servant. She was a highly capable bridge officer, and readily manned the helm, navigation, and science stations when needed. While not seen in the original show, Lt Uhura did assume command of the Enterprise during the animated series episode “The Lorelei Signal”.
Despite the impact of Lt Uhura in the original series, Ms. Nichols wanted to leave the show in order to pursue a career on Broadway. A chance meeting with the late Reverend, Dr. King changed her mind, and our lives.
Ms. Nichols recalled that Dr. King said she “…could not give up…the role was important to black children and women, as well as for others who would see blacks as equals”.
Since appearing on Star Trek Nichelle Nichols has continually inspired men and women, young and old, black and white; Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut, Whoopi Goldberg (known to geeks as Guinan – Star Trek: The Next Generation), and thousands of sci-fi fans, myself included, have been touched by an actress’ portrayal of a starship communications officer. I wanted to be an interpreter just like Lt Uhura. She is and always will be one of my greatest heroes.
Though she won’t actually travel into space (SOFIA’s altitude limit is roughly 12 km, and the boundary of space is arguably 400 km) Ms. Nichols will continue to inspire generations present and future to reach for the stars.
I must quote this esteemed and well loved woman, who just one day before this mission starts tweeted
This is more than I imagined! Such an honor to meet these education ambassadors who will be flying as well. https://t.co/2gHBWk0RB7
— Nichelle Nichols (@NichelleIsUhura) September 14, 2015
Like her, I am sure we all hope someone will get some great pictures.
For everything she has done for so many people from so many backgrounds, let us all say “Thank you Nichelle Nichols. Live long and prosper”!