Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt Nyota Uhura in the original series of Star Trek, died on 30 July, 2022 at the age of 89.

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The actress rose to fame in 1966 when she became the first African-American actress to have a lead role on a TV show as part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future where people of all races, nationalities and even species could live and work in harmony.

Despite this, Nichols almost left the show after its first season to pursue another job, but while at a fundraiser for the NAACP she was convinced to stay by one of her most enthusiastic fans – Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

When she mentioned leaving, he told her that she shouldn’t, as "for the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen."

Nichelle Nichols with co-star Leonard Nimoy in the premiere episode of Star Trek, which aired in the US on 8 September 1966. Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols with co-star Leonard Nimoy in the premiere episode of Star Trek, which aired in the US on 8 September 1966. Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

She continued in the role throughout its run and subsequent movies, continuing to break barriers such as in the season three episode 'Plato’s Stepchildren', which features the first interracial kiss with co-star William Shatner as Captain Kirk – just a year after laws prohibiting such relationships had been struck down in the US.

After the show ended in 1969, Nichols continued to act but also took on a new role as an advocate for promoting women and people of colour in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields.

While sitting on the board of directors at the National Space Institute, she was approached by NASA.

The agency had reopened applications for the first time since 1969, looking to hire dozens of crew members to fill the rostra for the upcoming Space Shuttle programme.

The Star Trek cast attend the rollout of Space Shuttle Engerprise. From left, James Fletcher (NASA administrator), DeForest Kelly (Bones), George Takei (Sulu), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Gene Rodenberry (creator of Star Trek) and Walter Koening (Checkov).
The Star Trek cast attend the rollout of Space Shuttle Engerprise. From left, James Fletcher (NASA administrator), DeForest Kelly (Bones), George Takei (Sulu), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Gene Rodenberry (creator of Star Trek) and Walter Koening (Checkov). NASA

But there was one problem – despite opening up applications to women and people of colour, the years of being shut out by NASA discouraged them from applying.

Well aware of her place as a role model, she donated her time to conducted a campaign tour across the US, convincing potential astronauts that not only did the agency now accept women and people of colour, they were a welcome and needed part of space exploration.

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The programme paid off. The astronaut class of 1978 included the first female astronaut (Sally Ride), the first African-American astronaut (Guion Bluford) and the first Asian-American astronaut (Ellison Onizuka).

Nichols continued to help recruit new astronauts into the late 1980s, and has been credited as an inspiration by dozens of astronauts, scientists and administrators, including Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space and Charles Bolden Jr, the first permanent African-American administrator of NASA.

Nichelle Nichols on SOFIA airborn observatory, examining a piece of paper
Nichelle Nichols and Jeffery Killberew, a principal for the New Mexico School for the Blind and the visually impared preparing Nichol's speech to his students on the SOFIA flight. Credit: NASA.

She continued to collaborate with NASA for many years, attending the christening of the first Space Shuttle – named 'Enterprise' following a successful naming campaign by Star Trek fans ­– and flying on the SOFIA airborne observatory in 2015.

Shortly after this, however, ill health and the onset of dementia forced her to take a step back from this work, officially retiring in late 2021, after one last appearance at LA Comic Con.

Nichelle Nichols and son Kyle Johnson at the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con. Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols and son Kyle Johnson at the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con. Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

Nicholls' legacy is still felt at NASA today, as the Artemis mission aims to place the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon.

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"Her light, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and draw inspiration," said her son, Kyle Johnson. "Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."

Authors

Elizabeth Pearson
Ezzy PearsonScience journalist

Ezzy Pearson is the Features Editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. Her first book about the history of robotic planetary landers is out now from The History Press.

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