‘Star Trek’ icon Nichelle Nichols makes her final convention appearance
LOS ANGELES — Nichelle Nichols, who inspired future astronauts and countless others, almost left “Star Trek” to return to Broadway.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked her out of it.
The civil rights leader told her that viewers needed to see black people in positions such as the communications officer on the USS Enterprise. He told her that the actress was making a difference by being on “Star Trek.”
“When Dr. King highlighted the impact of her being there, of her being seen, she decided to stay,” said Sonequa Martin-Green, a black actress who stars today as Capt. Michael Burnham in “Star Trek: Discovery.” “Ultimately she devoted her entire life to the progress of black people, people of color and women. She gave everything — her time, her energy, her intelligence, her wisdom, her leadership, her heart for the betterment of the world.
“I am only here because of her,” Ms. Martin-Green said in a video message as Ms. Nichols and her family and a large ballroom of fans watched late Sunday afternoon at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
It was billed as her final appearance at a sci-fi convention, and as Ms. Nichols, 89, came forward in her wheelchair down an aisle, she blew kisses enthusiastically.
The special moment was part of a miniature convention within a convention in a special floor devoted to “Star Trek” during the Los Angeles Comic-Con.
Originally plans were for a larger 2020 Burbank convention devoted entirely to Ms. Nichols, but those efforts were interrupted by COVID-19. Ultimately, Sky Conway, who has lived and worked in the Santa Barbara area, and his team decided against any further delays and led a celebration of Ms. Nichols’ life within Los Angeles Comic-Con. The event featured panels about her, and several female fans dressed as Uhura from the original “Star Trek” series.
Sunday’s closing tribute, which featured a video montage of Ms. Nichols’ scenes from the original “Star Trek” series and the movies that followed it, was delayed an hour. Ms. Nichols wanted to first finish signing autographs for a large crowd of fans.
On Sunday, her fans clearly included NASA. A representative, Denise Young, presented Ms. Nichols with a public achievement medal, for her success in recruiting minorities and women for the astronaut corps.
In fact, the tribute host was an astronaut: Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in the astronaut corps and the first woman of color to go into space. She was on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
As Dr. Jemison discussed “my claim to fame,” fans applauded her.
“But do you know what I get the most applause for?” Dr. Jemison said. She smiled. “In 1993, I became the first real astronaut to appear on ‘Star Trek.’”
Fans laughed, then applauded loudly.
The engineer, physician and former astronaut, who grew up in Chicago like Ms. Nichols, played an officer in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Dr. Jemison said she was a fan of not only Uhura but the actress who played her since she was a child. She said she wasn’t among those recruited by Ms. Nichols in the 1970s and ’80s for NASA, but found out about a “Star Trek” convention in the 1990s in Orlando, which wasn’t too far from her work at Cape Canaveral. She showed up unannounced at the convention, and when Ms. Nichols heard the astronaut wanted to meet her, she said, “You have Mae Jemison outside? Bring her in!”
“We’ve been buddies ever since,” Dr. Jemison said. “And I’ve started every work session with the words ‘Hailing frequencies open.’”
In addition to Dr. Jemison’s tribute, NASA administrators recorded video tributes for Ms. Nichols, and there was a video montage of various women at NASA who praised her for inspiring them.
When Ms. Young of NASA read a speech honoring Ms. Nichols during the medal presentation, fans in the audience teared up.
“Ms. Nichols, NASA honors you for truly and boldly going where none other have gone before, for your influence in making NASA a more diverse and inclusive agency for people of all backgrounds, for your unforgettable influence and your legacy,” Ms. Young said. “Therefore, on behalf of the NASA leadership, its workforce and myself, I am so honored to stow upon you the NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal.”
At that point, fans were allowed to come up and take photos of Ms. Nichols, and her son, Kyle Johnson, held a microphone and thanked NASA.
“Of course, I’m very proud of all she has done and the meaning of her work, not just as an actress but the very real and important work she inspires and enables others to undertake,” Mr. Johnson said. “We see and feel and experience the effects of that work so often and so profoundly that we actually forget how important it is and what a miracle it is and how it benefits all of us deeply.”
After that, groups of fans took turns taking photos of Ms. Nichols with various guest stars who worked with her in episodes of the original “Star Trek” series.
Hailing frequencies open.