Striking a blow for diversity in the space agency
Nichelle Nichols made her mark as communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the “Star Trek” TV series and films but her most important role came away from the camera, as an upcoming Paramount+ documentary posits.
“Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA,” a feature-length film that begins streaming Thursday, June 3, tells the story of how the actress pioneered the NASA recruiting program to bring more people of color and women into the space agency as the first female astronauts in the late 1970s and 1980s. She would also form the company Women in Motion, which recruited more than 8,000 Black, Asian and Latino men and women for the program, including Mae Jemison, the first African American female in space.
The film uses footage and interviews with celebrities, activists, scientists, astronauts and Nichols herself to tell the story of how the actress fought bureaucratic hesitation to make NASA one of the most diverse agencies in the U.S. government as one of its most effective recruiters.
“Everyone who was directly influenced or recruited by her, they all feel like she was talking just to them,” explains Todd Thompson, the film’s director. “So that was kind of fun. It’s that message that she put out there was so direct and so personal. … And that’s just the charisma and the energy of who she is, the essence of who she is. I can see why they would feel that way, being influenced by her recruiting message or however they were introduced to this program through her, whether it be through the PSA she did or the television commercials. … You know, they felt it was only them; she was talking just to them. It was pretty phenomenal.”
Among those with whom her message resonated were the first African Americans in space, Jemison and Guy Bluford, as well as fellow astronauts Frederik Gregory and Charles Bolden, all of whom are interviewed here. Also appearing are kin of the astronauts killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion, three of whom Nichols had recruited, as well as Martin Luther King III, who tells of the effect Nichols’ performance as Uhura had on his father.