Star Trek legend who became NASA’s ‘secret weapon’

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Story highlights

Exclusive interview with Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on Star Trek

Glamorous TV star was recruiter for NASA

One of first interracial kisses on TV, with William Shatner aka Captain Kirk

Toured with jazz legend Duke Ellington as dancer and singer

CNN  — 

Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she’s still as sassy and straight-talking as you’d expect from an interstellar explorer.

“I don’t have enough sense to keep my mouth shut,” says the legendary Star Trek actor with a hearty laugh. “Whatever comes up, comes out.”

“I can’t help myself.”

As the startlingly beautiful and fiercely intelligent Lt. Uhura on the hit 1960s TV series, Nichols was a revolutionary figure at a time when the only African-American women you saw on U.S. TV were usually playing servants.

Indeed, Star Trek was reportedly the only program Martin Luther King Jr would let his children stay up late to watch.

When Nichols was considering leaving the show to pursue a career on Broadway, King Jr personally implored her to stay, saying she was a powerful role model for black people across the country – and the world.

“That was the greatest thing,” says Nichols. “That was greater than anything else, to be told that by Dr. Martin Lurther King, because he was my leader.

“So I stayed and I never regretted it.”

NASA ambassador

As the original series drew to a close at the end of the decade, a real-life space race was gathering pace – and this time it was Nichols calling for auditions.

The United States landed a man on the moon in 1969 – but our astronauts needn’t be limited to white males, said Nichols.

“There were no women, and there were no minorities in the space program – and that’s supposed to represent the whole country?” she says, her voice rising incredulously down the phone from her home in Woodland Hills, California.

“Not in this day and age. We just absolutely cannot have that. I can’t be a part of that,” she said at the time.

The glamorous sci-fi celebrity was soon enlisted by NASA to recruit the country’s first female and ethnic minority astronauts.

She traveled the length and breadth of the United States calling for promising astronauts to come forward – among them was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator.

“As a matter of fact, Sally called me to tell me that I was the way she had heard about the space program,” says Nichols.

“I was somewhat of a celebrity in their eyes. I had gone on television and in several interviews spoke of why they should get involved, and they took it up and said ‘she’s absolutely right.’”

The kiss

Nichols wasn’t just a TV celebrity – she was a TV revolutionary, locking lips with William Shatner in one of the small screen’s first interracial kisses, in 1968.

Though at the time, she didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

“I come from an interracial family, and so it was kind of boring for me to be talking about something I experienced every day,” she says. “It was not new to me, because I lived it.

“But I realized it was new on TV, and I had the opportunity to bring it to the world.”

The scene – in which Lt. Uhura and Captain Kirk are controlled by humanoids who force them to embrace – received a huge response from the public, largely positive.

Society today has much to learn from the crew living on board the “Enterprise” in the 23rd century, says Nichols.

“Star Trek is about the freedom to be who you are, and be respected for who you are,” she says, her warm native Illinois accent raspy round the edges.