'Star Trek's' Lt. Uhura Was a NASA Recruiter. And It Worked Like a Charm

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(NASA)

The original run of NBC's "Star Trek" lasted only three years, far short of the Enterprise's five-year mission. The hour-long space opera was a morality play shaped by a mixture of genres, both science fiction and western. And while it may not have been beloved by TV executives, it certainly caught on with fans.

With this in mind, it makes sense that its enduring cult popularity would have an effect on those fans, even 20 years after the original show's last episode. That's how long actress Nichelle Nichols -- Lt. Nyota Uhura on the show -- recruited for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

(NASA)

"Star Trek" first hit the airwaves in 1966, during one of the most tumultuous times in American cultural history. In the late 1960s, the United States experienced the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, draft riots, race riots, assassinations, anti-war protests -- you name it. The country was in the middle of complete social upheaval.

"Star Trek" offered a world that transcended all of that without denying it. The social unrest of the 1960s was as much a part of the show's history as the war with the Romulan Empire.

The show itself was created by Gene Roddenberry, who had served as an Army Air Forces B-17 pilot during World War II and then as a Los Angeles Police Department officer. He named the vessel in the show "Enterprise" for the ship that turned the tide of the war for the Allies in the Pacific.

The bridge of the Enterprise was filled with cultural, racial -- and alien -- diversity, working together toward a common goal. Japanese-American actor George Takei was the ship's helmsman, Hikaru Sulu. Russian Pavel Chekov, played by Walter Koenig, was the navigator.

And of course, the communications officer, Nyota Uhura, was portrayed by Nichols. But when she almost left the show after the first season, it was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who convinced her to stay in the role.

She met the Civil Rights leader at an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills after telling Roddenberry she was leaving the show.

"He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character," Nichols told NPR. "I said something like, 'Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.' He said, 'No, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you on the march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.'"

Nichols thanked King and told him she would be leaving the show. His face, she said, became very grave.

"He stopped me and said, 'You cannot do that. ... Don't you understand what this man [Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. ... Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?' I was speechless."

Uhura was depicted as one of the ship's most capable and necessary bridge officers, not as a maid or other black stereotype.

Nichols stayed on, finishing the show (including television's first interracial onscreen kiss), and then voicing the character in "Star Trek :The Animated Series," and portraying her in six films and a slew of video games.

She, like many of the cast, became icons of the space race and NASA's astronaut programs. But it was Nichols who was actually employed by NASA to recruit new candidates for the upcoming Space Shuttle missions.

Nichelle Nichols with Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. (Nichelle Nichols/Twitter)

When NASA first approached the actress, she gave the space agency one caveat.

"I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don't choose one ... everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it," she told a crowd in Seattle.

And choose they did.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Nichols' efforts were responsible for recruiting Guion Bluford, the first African American astronaut; Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut; and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to fly the space shuttle.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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