“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That 1969 Neil Armstrong quote is certainly associated with space exploration, but even before that actress Nichelle Nichols was making all kinds of history in space — sort of. Portraying Lt. Uhura, the communications officer on the U.S.S. Enterprise on TV’s Star Trek from 1966 to 1969, Nichols was the first African American woman on TV not portraying a servant.
Despite that groundbreaking status, however, Nichols was tempted to quit the show because she felt her role lacked significance. No less than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed her mind. He told Nichols she was a vital role model for black children and young women all across the nation. In fact, former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison credits Nichols’ portrayal of Lt. Uhura for her career inspiration.
And it wasn’t just Jemison that Nichols influenced. After the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichols volunteered for Women in Motion, a NASA minority and female recruitment campaign. Those recruited as a result of her efforts include Dr. Sally Ride, Colonel Guion Bluford, Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair. (Below Nichols and other members of the Star Trek cast stand beside the Space Shuttle Enterprise.)
Prior to her role on Star Trek, Nichols sang with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands, performed in nightclubs and in musical theater, her first true love. And since the iconic TV show, she has performed in films, made guest appearances on TV, including a recurring role on ABC’s Heroes, and done considerable voiceover work. But no doubt, she will forever be most associated with the role of Lt. Uhura and known as one half of the first interracial kiss on U.S. television (the other half was William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk), quite controversial when it occurred in 1968.