8 reasons Nichelle Nichols is the coolest woman in space
Celebrate the Star Trek icon's 83rd birthday with these fascinating facts about the television pioneer, dancer, singer and NASA employee.
It's been an eventful year for the Star Trek veteran, filled with some lows and (very, very) highs. Of course, in February, we all lost her costar, Leonard Nimoy. Shortly thereafter, Nichols suffered a minor stroke. But, oh, how she did bounce back. Months later, the 82 year old was flying a mission for NASA.
On December 28, Nichols celebrates another birthday, so we thought it was fitting to honor the television pioneer, civil rights advocate, dancer, NASA employee and jazz singer. Oh, and 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking sci-fi franchise. She makes us proud to be Star Trek fans.
1. She worked with Gene Roddenberry before 'Star Trek.'
The soon-to-be Enterprise lieutenant earned her first credited television role on Roddenberry's The Lieutenant in 1964. Boldly ahead of it's time, the episode dealt with racism head on and went unaired at the time to avoid controversy.
2. She created the character of Uhura.
When Nichols auditioned for Trek, she walked in to meet Roddenberry carrying the novel Uhuru, which is Swahili for "freedom." As she told the Wall Street Journal, "Gene said he really liked the name of that book and wanted to use the title as a first name. I said, 'Why don’t you do an alliteration of the name Uhuru and soften the N and make it Uhura?' He said, 'You are Uhura and that belongs to you.'" Nichols also helped and developed the backstory of her character.
3. She sang with Duke Ellington's band at the age of 16.
The teenaged Nichols was travelling with Ellington's band as a dancer when the jazz legend pulled her aside one day and asked her to sing. She crooned some Duke tunes. He told her she would have to go on and front the band. Nichols was "wonderful," according to Ellington, but he kidded her about nervously gripping the microphone the entire time.
4. She recorded an album — and it's good!
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy famously recorded novelty records. Yet, The Transformed Man and "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" are perhaps best enjoyed ironically. Nichols blew them both away with her jazzy pipes. In 1967, she tackled ten standards on the cleverly titled Down to Earth for Epic records. Take a listen to "Feelin' Good."
5. Noted Trekkie Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her to stay on the show after the first season.
Fellow actress Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand) left Trek after the first season, and Nichols was afraid her character was being pushed aside in storylines as well, so she made the choice to leave the series. Not long after, she bumped into MLK at a fundraiser, and he talked her into staying on the Enterprise, underlining her public importance. Thankfully, she stuck around and earned some more prominent parts in Uhura-heavy episodes like "The Gamesters of Triskelion" and "Plato's Stepchildren."
6. She recruited Guion Bluford and Sally Ride to NASA.
In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA employed Nichols as a recruiter, as she helped to diversify the astronaut corps. She roped both Buford, the first African-American in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, for the space agency. She also brought in Charles Bolden, the current administrator of NASA.
7. There is an asteroid named for her.
Discovered in August 2001, an asteroid in the main belt of the solar system was dubbed 68410 Nichols in honor of the actress. It takes 4.39 years to orbit the sun. That puts her at about only 19 years old in her asteroid years. No wonder she still looks so good.
8. She went on a NASA mission herself — at the age of 82.
On September 15 of this year, the octogenarian took a trip with NASA's SOFIA telescope into the upper stratosphere. She documented the mission on social media. Follow the mission with a recap here. While she didn't fully enter outer space, it's way cooler than anything we've done. Nichelle proves there's still hope for us yet.