‘Woman in Motion’ chronicles Nichelle Nichols’ contribution to outer space history
When Lt. Uhura spoke, Capt. Kirk and everyone else on the Enterprise bridge listened.
They knew, of course, that the communications officer had important messages from Starfleet, other ships or maybe an enemy vessel commanded by someone in a really bad mood.
Like Capt. Kirk and company, NASA also knew to listen to Uhura, and that made all the difference for future astronauts.
Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, started a company, Women In Motion Inc., which recruited more than 8,000 women and minorities for NASA. Her recruits included American astronauts such as Sally Ride, the first female astronaut in outer space, and Mae Jemison, the first female black astronaut in space.
Ms. Nichols was passionate about recruiting astronauts and spoke on TV and radio and across the country, and she furthered her knowledge by taking astronaut training.
Ms. Nichols is honored in “Woman In Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA,” a compelling documentary that started streaming last weekend on Paramount+.
Directed by Todd Thompson, the documentary follows Ms. Nichols’ life, from her musical theater career to singing with Duke Ellington to her acting roles for Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s TV shows — first “The Lieutenant,” then “Star Trek.”
The movie follows her to “Star Trek” conventions and features extensive interviews with her from different eras, as well as interviews with Martin Luther King III and fellow “Star Trek” actors George Takei (Sulu) and Walter Koenig (Chekov).
And “Woman in Motion” puts the spotlight on astronauts who signed up for space, the final frontier, because of Ms. Nichols. Among them is Col. Frederick D. Gregory, who went from being an astronaut to the first black deputy NASA administrator. (He also was the first black astronaut to command a space shuttle mission.)
The documentary also features an interview with Charles Bolden, who was inspired by Ms. Nichols and became an astronaut in 1980. He went on to log more than 680 hours in space during four space shuttle missions, twice as a commander. His missions included deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. And in 2009, he became the first black man to be named the NASA administrator.
“Woman in Motion” touches on the challenges Ms. Nichols faced in her recruiting efforts, as well as the 1986 Challenger tragedy that cost the lives of astronauts recruited by Ms. Nichols. The documentary includes part of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation after the loss. (“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was dedicated to the Challenger astronauts.)
The documentary also features triumphs in space, as well as comments by Ms. Ride, the first female astronaut, and Ms. Jemison, the first female black astronaut. Ms. Jemison points out that she went from being inspired by Uhura on “Star Trek” to becoming an astronaut to having a speaking role on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” (The episode is “Second Chances,” and Ms. Jemison plays Lt. Palmer.)
And “Woman in Motion” includes interviews with people such as Rod Roddenberry, Gene Roddenberry’s son and an executive producer of current “Star Trek” programs; and Michael Dorn, the actor who played Worf on “The Next Generation.”
Although this isn’t mentioned in the documentary, Uhura’s photo is a regular part of the set on “All Rise,” the CBS courtroom drama. Inspired by Uhura, Judge Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick) keeps the photo on a shelf in her chambers.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Nichols was a regular face at sci-fi and “Star Trek” conventions, often signing autographs in dealers’ rooms. She has shown a great willingness to be photographed and raise her hand with the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” gesture. She smiles broadly when fans tell her about how she has inspired them.
Fans long remember her at conventions, where over the decades, she has spoken enthusiastically about “Star Trek” and told the story of how Martin Luther King Jr. insisted she remain on “Star Trek.”
In the 1960s, Ms. Nichols was unhappy with how little her character was doing on the series but the civil rights icon told her that her sheer presence in a non-stereotypical role made a difference.
Dr. King inspired her to stay.
And Ms. Nichols inspired others to follow Uhura into space.
(By the way, be sure to watch the documentary’s credits for a great moment with Ms. Nichols.)