Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nichelle Nichols | 'Star Trek' icon still has rank

Nichelle Nichols is a singer, dancer, actress and activist, but she's best known “Star Trek,” as the original Lt. Uhura, the fictional USS Enterprise's chief communications officer and the first African-American woman featured in a major TV show.

But her influence on space travel isn't confined to fictional galaxies. Nichols helped NASA recruit the first female and minority astronauts into the space shuttle program, including Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut. She serves on the board of governors of the National Space Society and on the advisory board of the International Space Camp.

In the 1970s, you worked with NASA to recruit women and minorities into the space shuttle program. What was that process like?

NASA didn't quite understand why women and people of color weren't responding to their recruitment call. I didn't understand why they didn't understand: that they had put out there how many recruitment drives they had conducted before that one and it had always remained an all-white, all-male astronaut corps. I promised NASA that I would bring in so many qualified women and people of color that they wouldn't know who to choose. I went to universities with strong science and engineering programs, I went to the Black Engineers' convention and they opened their arms. Women of all colors, African-Americans, Asians and our Spanish community were very skeptical. By the time I finished speaking with them, I brought in more than 3,800 qualified people of color and women to apply. Now, an integrated Space Shuttle corps is de rigueur .