Science fiction fans often consider 1977 to be the year of Star Wars. But, more importantly, 1977 was when space exploration made strides toward Star Trek’s vision of a diverse future. During a period of about four months in early 1977, Nichelle Nichols worked to recruit astronauts for NASA’s new space shuttle program. Her goal was simple and self-proclaimed: to get as many women and non-whites to apply as possible.
Memoirs of Nichols from 1994 Beyond Uhura devotes less than a chapter to this amazing moment in history. Nichols’ quest for diversity in space simply hasn’t been talked about enough. That is, until now.
Previously on Apple TV, but now streaming on Paramount+, the documentary woman in motion chronicles Nichols’ quest. Reverse met director Todd Thompson, who insists NASA wouldn’t be the same without star trek and Nicholas.
“When Nichelle launched her campaign, NASA had very few black or female candidates,” Thompson said. Reverse. “I’m not saying zero. But Sally Ride and Ron McNair; yes, they were there as a direct result of his campaign with NASA.”
Nichols’ attendance at the very first Star Trek conventions in the mid-1970s brought her into contact with various NASA officials, including Dr. von Puttkamer. After watching a presentation on the future of space travel, she was struck by a problem:
“There was no one in the astronaut corps who looked like me. There were no women. No blacks. No Asians. No Latinos.”
Prior to working with NASA, Nichols started her own company, Woman In Motion Inc., to create new job opportunities for women. What she did next was take that company’s goals and apply them to NASA. Unlike previous iterations of the space program – Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, et al. – the space shuttle program did not exclusively recruit pilots and military officials. Like Star Trek’s fictional Starfleet, a mix of civilians and specialists were needed to fly the Space Shuttle.
Why didn’t NASA have enough applicants? Nichols thought the issue was a matter of public trust. As the new documentary shows, his belief was that people who could apply being astronauts just didn’t believe they would be taken seriously. She was also deeply concerned that if NASA didn’t commit to the diversity goal, what it was doing would be nothing more than a “media blitz.”
As she says in the documentary, “If I put my name and reputation on the line for NASA, and find qualified women and minority people to apply, and a year from now I still see an astronaut entirely male body, I will personally file a class action lawsuit against NASA.”
His determination worked. In 1983, Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. became the first black American in space. In 1984, Ronald McNair became the second. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983.
Thompson doesn’t think Ride, Bludord, or McNair were die-hard Star Trek fans, but doesn’t see how the story could have turned out differently either.
“The best way I can answer the question – ‘could this have happened without her?’ — is that these contestants reached out for a reason,” he says. “If we had already had the diverse universe of Trek up there in space, there probably wouldn’t have been a need for Nichelle to know you, go wild and rally NASA.”
The foreign question that woman in motion poses isn’t so much about the historical fact of Nichols’ efforts to lead NASA’s diverse recruiting, it’s more about a larger question of why this story isn’t more famous.
“I was amazed that only part of a chapter of his memoirs was devoted to it,” Thompson said. “I thought, how could this be possible? It feels so monumental because we’re making a whole movie out of it. Maybe for her, it was just that when you’re in the middle of it all, you don’t just realize or recognize the importance.When the job is done, when the mission is done, you kind of check the box and move on to the next thing.
woman in motion dwells on Nichols in the thick of it and shows how she did more for space travel working with NASA than she ever did in the 1960s star trek. She used her power as a pop culture celebrity to get people into space who might not otherwise have made it. In a scene from the documentary, we also see Nichols piloting the space shuttle flight simulator. It’s an incredible moment as you realize that this famous sci-fi icon was actually piloting a version of a space shuttle. In the simulation, at least, she was able to land the orbiter unaided. She probably could have handled the real thing.
When asked in the documentary about the successful flight of the Space Shuttle Simulator, Nichols replies with a joke, saying, “That was Lt. Uhura.”
woman in motion is streaming now on Paramount+.