Time is winding down to the end of Women’s History Month of March 2021, but our celebration of women is still going strong! With that said, allow me to introduce you to the Uhura Effect. If you’re not a Trekkie (or Trekker) you aren’t likely to recognize the name Uhura. Lt. Uhura is the communications officer aboard the starship Enterprise in the iconic Star Trek series. The character was initially portrayed by actress Nichelle Nichols. In 1966 as Star Trek began, no one could have predicted the impact that this woman and role would have on culture, television, and STEM history.Dr. Mae Jemison—the first African American woman in space—credits Nichols in Star Trek as a major influence
The character Nyota Uhura did not get her full name until 1982 after author William Rotsler created the first name Nyota in his tie-in book Star Trek II Biographies. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and Nichelle Nichols both approved of the name. This completed a beautiful Swahili name meaning star (Nyota) freedom (Uhura), fitting for the bright star flying amongst the free stars of the universe on our TV screens.
It was on those tv screens where the Uhura effect started and it’s safe to say it was unbeknownst to Ms. Nichols. After the first season of Star Trek, Ms. Nichols was preparing to leave the show and return to musical theatre where she had great success. Before making her decision a Star Trek fan helped change her mind. Bumping into this fan at an NAACP fundraiser, these words were shared with her that altered her thinking, “You are our image of where we’re going, you’re 300 years from now, and that means that’s where we are and it takes place now. Keep doing what you’re doing, you are our inspiration.”. Those inspirational and motivational words spoken to the 35-year-old Nichols resonated greatly, after all, it isn’t every day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tells you how much your role on Star Trek means to him. Nichols continued as Uhura through the following two seasons of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Animated Series. I consider the interaction with Dr. King to be the first major seminal point of the Uhura effect.
As Star Trek neared its conclusion the second major event occurred. On November 22, 1968, during the tenth episode of season three, titled “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Uhura and William Shatner’s James Kirk were telekinetically pushed into a kiss. This event is cited as the first interracial kiss in television history. When you watch television today there are significantly more interracial relationships with the depictions growing and improving in positive lights.
Post Star Trek, the Uhura Effect shifted to the space program. NASA partnered with Ms. Nichols and Women in Motion to encourage women and people of color to join the program. The result was excellent, notably in NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978. The class was the first to include female and minority astronauts; of the 35 selected, six were women, one of them being Jewish American, three were African American, and one was Asian American. Among this historic group were Sally Ride, Colonel Guion Bluford, Ellison Onizuka, and Ronald McNair. Ride and Bluford made history as the first woman and the first African American in space.
The influence didn’t stop with Group 8 as Dr. Mae Jemison—the first African American woman in space—credits Nichols in Star Trek as a major influence. Dr. Jemison herself later appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the mid-1980s Nichols joined the board of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization, furthering her impact on space exploration. Ms. Nichols didn’t stop there, in 2015 she flew aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Boeing 747SP, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission.
Nichelle Nichols continues inspiring people to reach beyond the stars. A journey starting in the ’60s and, despite age and health concerns, is still progressing. Celebrate and appreciate the impact of this amazing woman known affectionately as Uhura.