To those, like myself, who’ve ever met Nichelle Nichols at a sci-fi convention, you get a feeling of being in the presence of royalty; she is both charming and regal, yet disarming with her earthly candor (and her laugh). Director Todd Thompson has assembled a documentary that tells many of the tales I’ve heard over the years (both in print and in person at conventions) but with firsthand input from Star Trek’s First Lady herself, as well as many others. Released as a Fathom Events limited theatrical release in 2019, “Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek, and the Remaking of NASA” offers a small slice of sci-fi TV history, but far more importantly, a look at how Nichols parlayed that initially limited TV success into changing the future of the American space program forever. That may sound like hyperbole to someone not in the know, but it’s true. “Woman in Motion” is a little bit of entertainment bio mixed with a whole lot of “Hidden Figures”-style historical truth.
The film tells the early days of Nichelle Nichols’ life with the help of audio tracks from her autobiography, “Beyond Uhura” (1994) narrated by Nichols herself. Born and raised in Chicago, which she describes as New York City moved to the midwest, she tells of her early days as a dancer which led to her big break dancing and later singing for none other than jazz legend Duke Ellington himself. While Nichols career in musical theater seemed like the course on which her life was set, a funny thing happened; en route to a gig in Hawaii, she had a layover in Los Angeles, and she fell in love with La La Land. She also caught the acting bug…
In Los Angeles, Nichols auditioned for a man who would change the course of her life; producer/writer Gene Roddenberry. Her first TV role was in Roddenberry’s short-lived Marine Corps drama, “The Lieutenant” (1963-1964) in a then-controversial episode (“To Set It Right”) which dealt with race relations within the Corps. The episode was such a hot potato at the time that a last-minute decision was made to shelve it. This infuriated Roddenberry, who told Nichols to audition once again for an as-yet-unnamed role in a new series he was putting together called “Star Trek.” Nichols was not particularly keen on sci-fi at the time, but hey, a gig’s a gig. She went to the audition and read the lines of Mr. Spock for director Joseph Sargent since there was nothing yet written for her role. Throwing her all into the reading, she easily got the job—and also had a hand in naming her future character. Roddenberry was struck by a Swahili-titled book of hers called “Uhuru” (‘freedom’), and a feminized version of the word became Uhura. Nichols’ first episode would be “The Corbomite Maneuver”; the third episode produced, but the 10th in broadcast order.
Note: The series lead for “The Lieutenant” was actor Gary Lockwood (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) who would guest star in Star Trek’s 2nd pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1965) which didn’t yet feature the character of Uhura—in her place was a black male comm officer named Mr. Alden (Lloyd Haynes). The episode “To Set It Right” costarred actor Don Marshall (1936-2016), who would later costar in Irwin Allen’s “Land of the Giants,” as well as quest star in an episode of “Star Trek” called “The Galileo Seven” (1966). Marshall played young science officer ‘Mr. Boma,’ who butts heads with the cool, emotionless Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Sadly, Marshall wouldn’t share any screen time with his former “Lieutenant” costar Nichols.
As often happens in television, actors are promised significant roles which get whittled down during rewrites and editing, and eventually Lt. Uhura became little more than a glorified switchboard operator on the starship Enterprise. While the series offered largely unprecedented diversity in its cast, supporting characters like Asian-American “Lt. Sulu” (George Takei) and others soon found their parts pared down to single-line identities, like “Warp factor one, sir,” and that infamous line of Uhura’s; “Hailing frequencies open, sir.” That line was delivered by Uhura whenever the Enterprise encountered an unfamiliar spaceship or a new planet (i.e. just about every week).
Note: The documentary does a montage of all the times Uhura recites some variation of “Hailing frequencies open” during the series, and yes, it was said quite a lot…almost to a comical degree. Uhura herself even jokes about the word ‘frequency’ nearly bringing her to tears in the first episode to be broadcast; “The Man Trap” (1966).
While the show featured characters from all over planet Earth (Scotland, North America, Russia, Africa), they were soon became little more than “moveable furniture”, as described by costar Walter Koenig (“Chekov”). The supporting characters’ popularity was based largely on the actors’ charm and potential more than any significant development. During the three years of the show’s run, we never even learned Sulu or Uhura’s first names (which were later established after the series in other media and spinoffs). Seeing her future on the series as a dead end by the end of the first season, Nichols was ready to quit and resume her earlier career in musical theater. That is, until she attended an NAACP fundraiser one night in Los Angeles…
For full disclosure, I’ve read and heard the following story literally dozens of times over the years, but it’s still riveting to hear it from Nichols herself. The story goes that Nichols was pressured at the fundraiser to meet “a fan” of the show. At first, she was ready to smile and tell said fan she was very busy, until she turned and came face-to-face with civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He came to tell her that “Star Trek” was the only series that he and his kids watched (a fact corroborated by King’s son in the doc). Nichols was flattered, and had to tell Dr. King that she had just turned in her resignation from the show. A dumbstruck Dr. King told Nichols “You can’t do that.” Taken aback by his impassioned career advice, he told her that her seemingly minor role was having a more profound impact than she realized. Her ‘background’ character of Uhura saw a strong black woman on the command deck of a future starship. She’d made it. Nichols was the face of a better future. Humbled by Dr. King’s plea, Nichols reversed her resignation and stayed with the show to the end of its three season run on NBC. After the show’s cancellation, Star Trek found new life in an animated cartoon series (1973-4) and later a series of live action movies. But before the ‘human adventure’ continued, there was the conventions…
It was during a convention in the early 1970s when Nichols met a striking, white-haired German-born aerospace engineer and physicist named Jesco von Puttkamer on a panel. The engineer was thrilled to meet Nichols, whom he admired for both her work on Star Trek as well as her gorgeous legs! They would talk later on, and he would invite her to NASA. Just as meeting Gene Roddenberry and Martin Luther King would change the course of Nichols’ career, going to NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC would change Nichols life forever as well. This is the most interesting part of the documentary for me, because it’s where science fiction had a direct hand in shaping future reality.
Note: Von Puttkamer would act as science advisor during production of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979. I can’t blame him for crushing on Nichols, since she was one of my boyhood crushes as well…those red miniskirts. Seriously. Wow.
While at NASA, Nichols was given an impressive presentation detailing “man’s future” in space, with audacious plans for the space shuttle, manned flights to Mars, etc. Nichols, who is known for her frankness, calmly told NASA director James Fletcher, “Where are my people?” All Nichols saw in the presentation were white men with crewcuts tackling this ambitious final frontier. Where was the human race’s diversity in this vision for the future? Nichols later went on a tour of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas where she saw women and people of color working behind the scenes in Mission Control and other parts of the complex as engineers and scientists. But once again she wondered; why weren’t these people in the NASA recruitment presentations? Nichols had a very valid point, and she was made an unusual offer…
Asked if she would be interesting in recruiting more diverse new astronauts for NASA, Nichols was overwhelmed; but she realized that this was a unique opportunity to put into practice the long-standing “IDIC” (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) philosophy seen in Star Trek. She accepted. Nichols also formed an advocacy group called “Women In Motion,” which sought more active roles for women in the space program, as well as increased racial diversity. She had a caveat to the arrangement, however; if she were going to recruit future astronauts, she couldn’t do it merely as a paid spokesperson—she had to know the job requirements for herself. Nichols wanted to experience astronaut training firsthand. In a NASA film made with Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, we see Nichols in a blue shuttle flight suit, undergoing the various rigorous aspects of astronaut training. Her stamina as a dancer (and actor) paid off. With some “on-the-job” training under her belt, she now felt ready to open doors for others. There was but one more obstacle; the US military.
Note: The documentary has a scene of Nichols flying an actual space shuttle simulator with surprising ease and aptitude, as noted by her instructor. All those years on Star Trek paid off, I guess!
Turns out the military wasn’t too keen on a civilian (an actor, no less) muscling in on their territory; recruiting would-be military pilots for careers as astronauts. This was a time-honored practice since the earliest days of the US space program, and it wasn’t about to change. Nichols found a loophole, however; what if she focused on recruiting civilians, or applicants whom the military had overlooked? Her strategy worked, and overlooked African-American military pilots like then-major (now colonel) Frederick Henry and Captain Winston Scott were soon joining NASA’s ranks.
Nichols would see many of her personal recruits in NASA’s astronaut class of 1978, including many women like Dr. Sally Ride (the first American woman in space), Judy Resnik (who became a personal friend of Nichols), Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Dr. Anna Fisher, Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon, and biochemist Shannon Lucid, who set an endurance record of 188 days aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1996 (a record later broken by Sunita Williams aboard the International Space Station in 2006). After the all-white male days of “The Right Stuff”, NASA was finally starting to reflect the rest of America, and much of that was due to a singer-dancer from Chicago who had a supporting role in an iconic 1960s sci-fi TV series.
In 1976, the stars of TV’s Star Trek (with the exception of William Shatner) were able to attend the rollout ceremony in Palmdale, California for the space shuttle prototype vehicle, now renamed “Enterprise” because of a letter-writing campaign to then-president Gerald Ford. Enterprise would never actually fly in space itself, but it would be used for free fall tests and other important research and development for the actual space orbiter vehicles. The first operational spaceflight of the shuttle took place on April 12th, 1981, with the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. This first flight was more of a technology demonstration; with little-to-no actual science or research being conducted beyond the orbiter’s operational readiness. The 20 year shuttle era (1981-2011) had officially began. Future missions would see the really interesting stuff begin to take place…
Note: The documentary includes some of the Enterprise rollout ceremony footage taken in 1976 at Northrop Aerospace’s Palmdale, California facility, where Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Walter Koenig and James Doohan and other guests listened to a live band play Alexander Courage’s theme to “Star Trek” as the test orbiter was rolled out of its hanger. As a kid, I remember a lot of press given to this event. Once again, this was one of those strange, wonderful moments in life where science fiction meets reality.
In the early 1980s, the shuttle program was ascending; flights were happening, though not with the frequency promised in the early press for the program. Flight turnarounds took significantly longer than the week or two advertised in the earliest days of the program. But nevertheless, history was being made. Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African-American to fly in space in August of 1983, the same year when Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly into space. The numbers of ‘firsts’ for America’s space program was rapidly escalating as civilians were encouraged to fly right alongside seasoned pilots. While the shuttle’s purpose seemed ambiguous at times, the number of Americans flying into space was increasing. In December of 1985, Senator Jake Garn became the first serving politician to fly into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and a month later there was to be a celebrated flight of America’s first school teacher into space with 37-year old Christa McAuliffe aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Unfortunately, this was when NASA’s self-confidence in its success began to outweigh its caution…
January 28th, 1986 saw the disastrous 25th flight of the space shuttle system which led to the destruction of the orbiter Challenger and the deaths of its entire crew. Among the dead were three of Nichols’ personal recruits; Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair and Nichols’ personal friend, Judy Resnik; an Asian-American, an African-American and a Jewish woman, respectively. The very diversity that Nichols has so long sought to see reflected in NASA’s astronaut corps were gone in a horrifying explosion shortly after liftoff on that freezing cold January morning in Florida. During this point in the documentary, Nichols talks about her close friendship with “Judy”, and the tremendous feeling of loss still overwhelms her to this day. After trying to get through the segment, she had to ask the director to stop filming because she couldn’t compose herself. 33 years later (at the time of the doc’s filming), the emotion of that day was still too raw to revisit. After a couple of years of ‘working the problem,’ NASA eventually found a way to repair the O-ring flaw in the solid rocket booster design, and revised its criteria for launching in extreme weather. The shuttle program flew again, and Nichols was grateful to see more of her recruits resuming the Challenger’s mission. As Uhura’s former captain once said, “Risk…risk is our business!”
Note: I’m in my mid-50s, but I’ll never forget the Challenger tragedy. I was at an appliance store shopping for a TV cart when the clerk began turning all of the TVs in the store to the same news channel; he’d said, “The space shuttle just blew up,” and my heart sank. It felt surreal. As a lifelong space geek, I’d (literally) had nightmares of such a possibility, and this was every bit as bad as those nightmares. Watching Nichols crying during the Challenger segment of this documentary reopened those 35 year old wounds. Sadly, my own misgivings about the shuttle program were reinforced 17 years later in February of 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during the heat of reentry after a chunk of insulating foam pierced a hole in its wing’s thermal insulation during launch.
Like the astronauts themselves, Nichols was ever the optimist for the future, and she took understandable pride in seeing more of her applicants flying into space. She continued making films for NASA, popularizing space science for young people, particularly girls and minorities. She’d already made a short film for NASA in 1979, during the making of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” In the short film, she appeared in character as Uhura, “beaming down” to a group of middle school kids in her beige uniform from that film (about the same age as myself when I first saw ST-TMP). It’s adorable to see Nichols clearly relishing her fictional role (the role she once found so deeply frustrating) in order to reach young people and excite their imaginations for the future. I’ve always adored Nichelle Nichols, and I count myself lucky to have met her on several occasions. This documentary reveals some intimate moments of her life that I’ve never seen, and it made me love her even more.
“Woman in Motion” also features the historic meeting between Nichelle and Dr. Mae Jemison; who flew on the space shuttle Endeavor in September of 1992, becoming the first African-American woman in space. Their meeting took place on the main stage at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas, during the annual ‘Star Trek Las Vegas’ convention (the largest annual Star Trek convention in the United States). Once again real-life meets science-fiction, with Star Trek being the street on which the two intersect. In 1993, Dr. Jemison would take a fictional ride aboard the USS Enterprise-D, playing the transporter technician in “The Next Generation” episode “Second Chances.” Just like TNG costar Whoopi Goldberg, Jemison was personally inspired by seeing Nichols’ character of Uhura on the bridge of the original starship Enterprise all those years ago. While Goldberg excitedly saw Nichols as a black lady who “wasn’t no maid,” Jemison saw a woman working in space right alongside men and even an extraterrestrial or two. Suddenly, for both Oscar-winner Goldberg and astronaut/engineer Jemison, the future seemed possible thanks to a dancer/singer from Chicago who caught the acting bug while on a layover in Los Angeles.
Note: I actually attended that Star Trek convention (see: August 2017 archives of this site) but arrived a bit too late to see their historic encounter onstage after a four and a half hour drive through the desert. I kick myself to this day for not being on time to see that!
In 2012, Nichelle Nichols would meet another high profile Star Trek fan when she met then-president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House. Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, was thrilled to meet the Grand Dame of Star Trek. The famous photo above chronicles their meeting, with each giving the Vulcan “live long and prosper” splayed-finger salute. Nichols’ legacy continues even today, as African-American astronaut Victor Glover (whom I met in 2015; more on that below) is currently doing multiple space walks during his several month stay aboard the International Space Station. Space is now for everybody. As Nichols says, “This is your NASA.”
The credits of the documentary feature Nichols singing a melodic rendering of the old classic made famous by Frank Sinatra during the Apollo era, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Not to be missed.
Yes, many of the stories told in the film I’ve heard/read many times before (especially the Martin Luther King story), but they’re told with a firsthand power that you can’t quite get from reading secondhand accounts. Seeing Nichols’ heartbreak from the memory of her lost friend “Judy” was profoundly painful—I feel as if I’ve invaded Nichols’ privacy just by seeing it.
To have this little gem of a documentary available for streaming now (February of 2021) is a nice way for Star Trek fans (and real-life space geeks) to celebrate Black History month. “Woman in Motion” is sprinkled with sound bites from prominent African-Americans in the fields of science and astronautics, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I met back in 2012), former NASA administrator Charles Bolden, astronauts Frederick Henry, Winston Scott and Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr. (the first African American in space). We also hear firsthand accounts from Civil Rights leaders and politicians, like the late John Lewis, Representative Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, and Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as clips from actress Vivica Fox (“Independence Day”) and actor Michael Dorn, among others. Dorn played the Klingon Starfleet officer “Worf” on both “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Fox jokes during a clip taken at a convention that Nichols’ autograph line was longer than hers!
As a celebration of the diversity behind American space program, “Woman in Motion” makes a perfect double-feature with 2017’s “Hidden Figures” as well. Well worth a streaming rental price and 96 minutes of your time.
I’ve had the privilege to meet quite a few faces in the documentary as well, including Neil deGrasse Tyson and, more recently, astronaut Victor Glover. Glover left for the International Space Station in November of last year aboard a SpaceX Dragon crew vehicle atop a Falcon rocket, and is still aboard as of this writing. Glover and his crew were wearing the sleek new spacesuits which would not be at all out of place on an episode of Star Trek, I might add.
I met Glover after a panel at San Diego Comic Con, 2015. The panel was on the book and (then-upcoming) film of Andy Weir’s “The Martian.” Several of the guest speakers, including astronaut Victor Glover, were on-hand to discuss the viability of future manned mission to Mars. Dressed in my trademark Fred Flintstone costume (hey, it’s Comic Con) I met him after the panel and we posed for a pic together; a caveman meets a spaceman! He was a good sport, and a truly affable guy. I wished him well, and I squeed like a toddler a few years later when I learned he was going to the space station. I posted the above collage of Glover’s early morning November launch, as well as views taken inside the cabin and a pic of our own meeting (of course, my big stupid eyes had to close). I had a feeling Glover would be a rising star in NASA’s future. Sometimes I love being right!
And of course, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Nichelle Nichols herself on several occasions. The first time I met her was at a sci-fi convention in 2002, where she autographed a copy of her autobiography “Beyond Uhura.” I remember being a bit starstruck as I clumsily confessed that she was a former childhood crush of mine; she teased me by saying, “What do you mean ‘former‘?” She then gave my wife and I a hug. I also met her briefly at San Diego Comic Con four years later, at a sci-fi convention in Los Angeles and the annual Star Trek Las Vegas convention in 2019. At Star Trek Las Vegas, a buddy of mine posed for a photo op with her during the convention. He was as nervous as I was when I first met her. I’ve seen Nichols at many other events as well (including a Star Trek concert a few years ago at the Pantages). I must say that meeting Nichelle Nichols in person always feels a bit like meeting royalty—it’s a feeling that’s enhanced when you realize her actual accomplishments in making the final frontier a reality for so many people.
“Woman In Motion” be rented/purchased for streaming on Youtube, AmazonPrime, Vudu, iTunes, and GooglePlay (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are nearing closer to 498,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (one may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spread coronavirus). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Live long and prosper!