The mission recited at the top of each “Star Trek” episode was clear: To boldly go where no man has gone before.
A new documentary, “Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA” (streaming Thursday on Paramount+), explores how that mission became a reality and how the 1960s series — and more pointedly one of its stars, Nichelle Nichols, 88 — influenced activists, actors and even NASA astronauts with her role as Uhura.
“It is so inspiring for our sons and daughters to learn from the examples of Nichelle Nichols as a testament as to what one person can do when they believe in the spirit of diversity and development for all of our children,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump says in the film.
The documentary includes interviews old and more recent with astronauts, “Star Trek” stars and writers, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. III, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nichols herself and more.
Here are five things you might not have known about Nichols and “Star Trek.”
Nichols sang with Duke Ellington
Nichols started her career as a dancer and singer, and she wanted to be the first Black ballerina when she was younger. She originally danced ballet during performances by Duke Ellington and his band, but Ellington asked her to sing one night when the lead performer became sick and left the band. Bonus: Nichols sings “Fly Me to the Moon” over the documentary’s credits.
A TV controversy inspired the creator of ‘Star Trek’
Before “Star Trek,” the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, produced “The Lieutenant,” another TV series in the 1960s where he met Nichols, then appearing in her first television role. A 1964 episode of the show titled “To Set it Right” centered on race, but was considered controversial and ended up not airing, upsetting Roddenberry, according to the documentary. He wanted to produce a show that would be diverse and would focus on telling more of these types of stories. He soon started work on a show that would become “Star Trek.”
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Nichols helped create her ‘Star Trek’ character’s name
Roddenberry had hoped to cast Nichols in his new show, Nichols says in the film, and she auditioned before her character was named. Nichols went to lunch with director Joseph Sargent and brought along a book, “Uhuru,” which is Swahili for “freedom.” Roddenberry saw the book and wanted to use it as the name for her character. Nichols says she suggested they change it to “Uhura,” to “soften the name.”
Nichols nearly quit ‘Star Trek’
According to one of the show writers, Nichols noticed her role was being diminished and wanted her character to do more than say her famous line, “hailing frequencies open.” She planned on leaving the show to explore other acting opportunities.
Meanwhile, a fan surprised Nichols at an NAACP event and was disappointed to hear she was thinking of quitting. The fan was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told her “Star Trek” was the only show he allowed his children to watch, and convinced her to remain on the show. Nichols said he told her, “You don’t understand the affect that you are having, not only on Black people, not only on young women, but on everybody. Everybody’s mind and attitude is changed immeasurably simply because you are there.” Nichols remained on for the rest of the series’ run and also appeared in six “Star Trek” films.
How Nichols changed the space program
One of the consultants for “Star Trek” was NASA director of science Jesco Von Puttkamer. Nichols spoke with him about space and NASA, and after the show was no longer on the air and Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, Nichols began writing columns in magazines about the space program and its lack of Black and women astronauts.
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In 1977, Nichols was appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute and later was invited to NASA headquarters, just as NASA was looking to expand its pool of talent and diversify. NASA asked Nichols, who had also started a consultant firm, Women in Motion, to help recruit more women and people of color applicants for the astronaut program. In just four months, Nichols was credited with bringing in more than 8,000 applications, of which more than 1,600 were women and more than 1,000 were people of color.
Among the astronauts who applied and were accepted into the 1978 astronaut program following Nichols’ 1977 recruitment campaign were Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Col. Frederick D. Gregory, who would go on to become a NASA deputy administrator, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., who became the first African American in space, Judy Resnik, who was the second American woman in space and Ronald McNair, who was the second African American to fly in space. Nichols received a public service award from NASA.
Nichols helped make space, the final frontier, available for all people. “Our space program is our future. We haven’t even begun to begin,” Nichols says.