As Nichelle Nichols came forward in her wheelchair down an aisle in a ballroom, she blew kisses enthusiastically to the fans she inspired.
That was last December at Los Angeles Comic Con, where she was given an hour-long tribute at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the ways she’s inspired everyone from “Star Trek” fans to astronauts to actresses.
“I am only here because of her,” Sonequa Martin-Green, a black actress who stars today as Capt. Michael Burnham in “Star Trek: Discovery,” said in a video message as Ms. Nichols and her family and a large ballroom of fans watched in December during Los Angeles Comic Con.
Ms. Nichols impressed people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told her she needed to continue to play Lt. Nyota Uhura, one of the early, non stereotypical roles for black actors on “Star Trek.” Ms. Nichols was one of the first black actresses in a major role in TV.
Ms. Nichols, who died Saturday at age 89 at Silver City, New Mexico, went beyond playing a communications officer in the original TV series and the subsequent six movies starring the original “Star Trek” cast. At NASA’s request after “Star Trek” went off the air, she worked to recruit minorities and women as astronauts.
“Ultimately she devoted her entire life to the progress of black people, people of color and women,” Ms. Martin-Green said. “She gave everything, her time, her energy, her intelligence, her wisdom, her leadership, her heart for the betterment of the world.”
A NASA representative, Denise Young, presented Ms. Nichols at the December tribute with a public achievement medal, for her success in recruiting minorities and women for the astronaut corps.
And 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. The engineer, physician and former astronaut 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 a “Star Trek” 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.
Fans were thrilled to see Ms. Nichols during her final convention appearance, which honored a groundbreaking actress and singer who paved the way for other minorities and women on Earth and beyond.