Trailblazing actor Nichelle Nichols, best known for her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series, died on Saturday due to heart failure. Fans, friends, colleagues, and admirers are all paying tribute to the groundbreaking performer, who inspired countless people through both her acting and her advocacy. She was 89.
Though Nichols sang and performed in musicals in the early ’60s, it was her portrayal of the USS Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura that ultimately brought her to fame. Uhura was celebrated as among the first Black characters on American television not in a menial role, and in fact was a respected, equal member of Star Trek‘s ensemble cast.
As such, Nichols became a powerful figure of positive Black representation, inspiring people such as NASA astronaut Mae Jemison and actor Whoopi Goldberg — as well as becoming the celebrity crush of then-future president Barack Obama.
Famously, Nichols didn’t realise the impact she already had early in Star Trek‘s run, and considered leaving for a role on Broadway when the series was still in its first season. Fortunately, she was dissuaded upon meeting civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King at a fundraiser, who approached her as an enthusiastic fan and stressed how important her work was in breaking boundaries. After learning that she intended to leave the show, he personally convinced her to stay.
“We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves,” Nichols told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “It’s one of the most important things that happened in my life and it changed and defined my career. I took my role much more seriously after that.”
Nichols ultimately stayed on Star Trek and continued to inspire viewers for all three seasons. This included the famous kiss between Captain Kirk and Uhura during Season 3, which aired just one year after interracial marriage was made legal in the U.S., and is now considered a significant step regarding interracial relationships being represented on American television.
Nichols continued to look to the stars even after Star Trek‘s run ended, volunteering with a NASA Astronaut Corps project to hire marginalised employees. This project resulted in the recruitment of America’s first female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride, as well as its first Black astronaut, Colonel Guion Bluford.
She further served on the board for the then-called National Space Institute, a non-profit space advocacy group, and was involved in leadership of the Space Cadets of America. For her work, Nichols was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal — the agency’s highest form of recognition for a non-government employee.
NASA is among those paying tribute to Nichols today, remembering her as an inspirational role model and symbol of a brighter future.
Rest in peace, lieutenant.