As Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichols played one of science fiction’s first female astronauts. But, she’s also helped launch real female astronauts into space.
Nichols, who will be in Edmonton this weekend for the Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo, is deeply passionate about the space program. She understands that many people who work for NASA today were inspired by the adventures of the Enterprise crew on Star Trek.
Case in point: Last month when NASA's Endeavour piggybacked a 747 to Los Angeles, she was named Mistress of Ceremonies for the welcoming of the space shuttle to LAX.
“It was awesome,” she says. "I am accustomed to handling large crowds, and everything was fine until the shuttle landed and pulled up right behind me, and I could feel my heart going ba-boom, ba-boom."
Nichols’s voice blew around in the wind, and she resorted to singing the Star Trek theme while she regained her composure at the podium.
But emceeing the Endeavour arrival is just one of many collaborations Nichols has done with NASA. Were it not for Nichols, Sally Ride might not have been the first woman in space. In fact, we might not have put a woman in space, yet. Both Ride and Judy Resnik, who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, came to NASA as part of a recruiting drive for women and minorities that was headed by Nichols.
The first thing the actor had to do was convince women and minorty astronaut hopefuls that what she was doing was not a publicity stunt, but a legitimate attempt to make space more accessible.
“That was why I took a year off from my career,” she recalls. “There were so many qualified women and minorities. I found so many, that NASA told me, ‘Please stop.’ I told NASA I wasn’t going to find just one, I was going to find so many qualified women. I told them that if they didn’t accept these women that I was going to sue them.”
For Nichols, being a fictional communications officer gave her an outlet to make a real impact in the space program. But, even now, she doesn’t think about herself as an agent for change.
“I looked at it like I was under contract, and I had a job to do. And, in my case, I thought if it as something I was being asked to do." She adds, "I could not consider not getting the job done.”
When Nichols comes to Edmonton, she will be signing autographs for fans who — though not space veterans — are honorary members of Starfleet. She’s a regular attendee of conventions, and says she never tires of meeting fans of the show and the Star Trek movies.
“They are the greatest people in the world," she says. "To say I would get tired of it would be like saying that I am a singer and that I have got tired of singing. I might get tired, but I never get tired of it.”