August 17, 2012 11:06 pm

How Nichelle Nichols Changed the Face of NASA

During the Curiosity Rover landing, some of our fans on Facebook commented about the apparent lack of people of color in the control room. One fan, Mike, brought up the fact that Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, had been part of a NASA effort to recruit women and minorities.

You can hear the story yourself in Part 2 of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Nichelle Nichols, NASA and Nichelle Nichols, recorded a week before STS 135, the final shuttle flight.

If you thought A Conversation with Nichelle Nichols was moving, I think you’re in for a surprise with Part 2. If anything, it’s even more emotional, because it’s focused on how her interest in science, young people and the future came together to have specific and real impact on NASA, literally changing the face of our space program.

Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek's Lt. Uhura, signing autographs at NASA Dryden

Nichelle Nichols signing autographs for Dryden’s Gwen Young, Louise Boyd and scores of other Dryden employees during her visit and tour of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards and the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale Jan. 10, 2012. (NASA / Tom Tschida)

Nichelle  tells the story of how she came to work for NASA. After giving a speech in the late 1970’s called “Space, What’s In It For Me?” where she criticized NASA for not selecting women and people of color to become astronaut candidates, Nichelle was invited to find and recruit talented candidates. Her efforts resulted in NASA’s selection of five women, three African American men, and an Asian American.

Among her recommendations: Dr. Mae Jemison. Jemison had applied to NASA in 1983 and been rejected. Nichols convinced her to apply again in 1987, and the rest is history: she was accepted, and became the first black woman in space, flying aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on STS 47 in September of 1992.

Nichelle also helped recruit the first two African American astronauts in space, Col. Guion Bluford (STS-8, Aug 30, 1983, also STS 39, STS 53, STS 61-A) and Dr. Ronald McNair, (STS 41-B, Feb. 3, 1984, STS 51-L), and Dr. Judith Resnik (STS 41-D Aug. 30, 1984, STS 51-L)

Sadly, Dr. McNair and Dr. Resnik both died on January 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after launch. Nichelle and Neil talk about that, too.

Another of Nichelle’s “astronauts”: General Charles Bolden, veteran of 4 space shuttle flights as either pilot or commander, and currently, the Administrator of NASA.

It was Charles Bolden who, when Curiosity landed, got to say:

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future… This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory…”

Nichelle also tells Neil about her current and ongoing efforts to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and technology. When Neil says, “So you’re still at it?” Nichelle answers, “I’m never going to stop.”

Of course, they also talk about Gene Roddenberry, and his and StarTrek’s deep sense of morality regarding how we should treat each other and conduct ourselves.

And that brings me back to the comments on Facebook on the night Curiosity landed on Mars. Some people felt the person who kept commenting on the lack of black faces in the Curiosity control room was being rude, or off topic, or argumentative.

Listening to this episode, I think that it is appropriate, standing on the precipice of our latest achievement, that we do reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

Please check out the episode yourself, and share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons


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