As Trekkies around the world mourn and reflect on the legacy of “Star Trek” icon Nichelle Nichols, those who have actually traveled into the final frontier are honoring the actress’ pivotal work in getting women and people of color into NASA’s astronaut program.
On Paramount+, alongside all of Nichols’ “Star Trek” adventures, the documentary “Woman in Motion” chronicles how Nichols used her fame as Enterprise officer Lt. Uhura to challenge NASA to seek out a more diverse set of astronauts during the development of its space shuttle program, leading to a partnership between the space agency and Nichols’ program Women in Motion.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969 — and “Star Trek” was finishing its original run on TV — the astronaut program was exclusively filled with white men who served as military test pilots. Nichols criticized NASA for its claims that it could not find any women who were qualified to go into space, this despite the fact that Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the first woman in space six years before the Apollo 11 mission.
“I resented that and decided I was going to do something about it,” Nichols said in the trailer for the documentary.
In response to her challenge, NASA contracted Nichols and her company Women in Motion Inc. to recruit women and POC scientists, military personnel and others as potential candidates not just for the astronaut program but other positions in NASA. As the space shuttle program was launched in the 1980s, Nichols’ efforts quickly bore fruit. In 1983, physicist Sally Ride and Air Force Col. Guion Bluford, both Women in Motion recruits, became the first American female and Black astronauts in space.
Other Women in Motion recruits include engineer Judith Resnik and physicist Ronald McNair, both of whom were tragically among the astronauts killed in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Even after Nichols left NASA in the late 1980s, her impact was still felt. In 1992, engineer Mae Jemison became the first Black woman in space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. Jemison said that watching Uhura on “Star Trek” was what inspired her to become an astronaut, and after her trip to space she even had a guest appearance on an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” meeting Nichols on set.
“We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, ‘Star Trek’ actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible,” NASA tweeted on Sunday. “She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”
Watch the trailer for “Woman in Motion” in the clip above, and watch the full documentary now on Paramount+.