As Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichols only wore a gold, command division uniform in one episode (“The Corbomite Maneuver”) of Star Trek: The Original Series. But the new documentary film Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA leaves no doubt Nichols has been a commanding presence in and has left a lasting mark on the U.S. civilian space program.
The movie’s of obvious interest to Star Trek fans. But Woman in Motion will appeal just as strongly to anyone interested in science and space exploration, in the history of American civil rights and the struggle for a more inclusive society, or in fantasy’s potential to inspire and influence change in the world of fact.
Driven to see “my people” exploring outer space
Few long-time Star Trek fans will learn anything new about the show itself or the character of Uhura from Woman in Motion.
It ticks familiar boxes about Star Trek’s social relevance; the requisite clips from “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and “Plato’s Stepchildren” are here. It correctly laments how Gene Roddenberry’s high hopes for the Uhura character went unrealized. And it includes the often told but always compelling story of how no less a fan than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded Nichols to stay with the series.
But Woman in Motion contains much this long-time fan, at least, somehow never knew about Nichelle Nichols herself. For example, I’d never heard the story of her big break singing for Duke Ellington’s band—a moment straight out of 42nd Street, with a humorous coda.
But Woman in Motion kicks into warp speed once its main story begins.
Inspired by NASA engineer Dr. Jesco van Puttkamer’s presentation at the Star Trek Chicago convention in 1975, Nichols wondered why NASA’s Astronaut Corps included no Blacks or women. “Where are my people?” she asked.
Her search for answers eventually led her to spend four intense months recruiting women, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and others for the class of astronauts that would crew the Space Shuttle program.
Nichols worked hard to overcome both a history of discrimination in the space agency and skepticism from potential candidates that NASA really wanted them. But thanks in large part to her persistent and highly public recruiting, NASA’s 1978 Astronaut Class included six women and three Black men.
In fact, NASA expanded the class size to 35 because Nichols found the agency so many qualified candidates—just as she’d promised she would.
Woman in Motion affirms people’s power to make positive change
The final third of Woman in Motion follows some of Nichols’ recruits on their historic missions, including Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, on STS-7, and Guion Bluford, the first African American astronaut, on STS-8.
Tragically, three of Nichols’ recruits—Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, with whom Nichols had remained especially close—died in the Challenger explosion. The film shows Nichols is still heartbroken by their deaths.
But Woman in Motion is ultimately an uplifting tribute to Nichols’ determination to make outer space a place for all people, as it is in Star Trek’s fictional future.
In the film, Nichols says she’s always been an optimist because if something isn’t right, people have the power to change it.
Through not only her feverishly paced four-month recruitment campaign but also her ongoing relationship with NASA and her involvement in STEM education for young people, Nichols has exercised her power in wonderful ways.
However highly you think of Nichelle Nichols now, Woman in Motion will raise your esteem for her higher.