Nichelle Nichols, a 'Star Trek' icon, trailblazer and space advocate, dies at 89

Actress Nichelle Nichols is seen at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, during a 2010 event with LEGO.
Actress Nichelle Nichols is seen at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, during a 2010 event with LEGO. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Actress Nichelle Nichols, one of the most adored and respected members of the "Star Trek" family passed away over the weekend at the age of 89. 

The news of the "Star Trek" icon's death by natural causes at her home in Silver City, New Mexico was first reported by her son Kyle Johnson on her official Instagram account, and was later confirmed by Nichols' longtime manager and business partner, Gilbert Bell. Nichols had been dealing with health issues over the past few years, having suffered a mild stroke in 2015 and had been struggling with dementia since 2018.  

"I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years," Johnson posted. "Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."

Related: Nichelle Nichols, Uhura on 'Star Trek,' Boldly Rides NASA's Flying Observatory

Loving respects and tributes are circulating around the world as Trekkies and their extended families awoke to the news Monday morning. Widespread condolences have crossed all generations and include heartfelt thoughts from William Shatner, Adam Nimoy, George Takei, LeVar Burton, Kate Mulgrew, J.J. Abrams, Wilson Cruz, Jeri Ryan, Alex Kurtzman, and dozens more.

"Star Trek" actress Nichelle Nichols was employed by NASA to recruit new astronauts into the late 1980s. (Image credit: NASA.)

"I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle," Shatner tweeted. "She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US and throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family."

Celia Rose Gooding, currently starring as a younger Nyota Uhura in Paramount Plus's "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," offered her own words to the memory of Nichols. "She made room for so many of us," she tweeted. "She was the reminder that not only can we reach the stars, but our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it!"

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series (Image credit: CBS/Paramount)

Born in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932 as Grace Dell Nichols, she kicked off her career in show business as a singer and dancer with dreams of becoming the first African American ballerina. At the age of 14 she scored her first professional job performing at Chicago's  Sherman Hotel, then later joined Duke Ellington's and Lionel Hampton's international roadshows before she lit off for the bright lights of Hollywood in the late '50s to become an actress. Her first film role was an uncredited gig in director Otto Preminger's 1959 musical, "Porgy and Bess."

In her initial TV roles, "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry hired her to play a black soldier's fiancée in a never-shown episode of the 1964 TV series "The Lieutenant."  But when Roddenberry's iconic sci-fi series "Star Trek" was in development, he cast her in the pivotal role as Communications Officer Lt. Nyota Uhura.  

Nichelle Nichols with her Enterprise crew members in 1989's "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier." (Image credit: CBS/Paramount)

It's been widely noted that Nichols almost walked off the "Star Trek" series out of frustration with her shrinking screen time, and it was actually the legendary Martin Luther King Jr. who helped talk her out of it, saying, "You cannot, you cannot," she remembered him telling her. "For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people, who can sing, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers. If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and it is not a female role, he can fill it with anybody, even an alien."

Always pushing artistic boundaries, Nichols and her co-star William Shatner shared what is thought to be one of the first interracial kisses in scripted television history when their lips touched during the 1968 episode "Plato's Stepchildren."

Following the cancellation of "Star Trek" in 1969, Nichols stayed in the public's eye with a number of small roles in Hollywood films and TV shows, and was often seen at "Star Trek" fan conventions. She also worked on "Star Trek: The Animated Series" in 1973, providing the voice for Uhura and several other characters.

"Star Trek" royalty Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura for over three decades, has died at 89. (Image credit: CBS/Paramount)

Starting in 1979 with the genesis of the "Star Trek" feature films, Nichols reprised her role as the capable Communications Officer beginning with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and ending five films later in 1991's "Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country."

Her affiliation with NASA began in the 1970s as she partnered with the storied space agency to assist with the recruitment of more women and minorities into the space shuttle program. This new role as a NASA spokesperson via her company, Women in Motion, was responsible for discovering Sally Ride and Judith Resnick, the first and second American women in space, as well as Guion Bluford Jr. and Ron McNair, the first and second black astronauts in space, and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space. Her efforts were instrumental in boosting NASA's female astronaut candidates from 100 to 1,649, and minority recruits from 35 to over 1,000.

Nichols' inspirational volunteer work with NASA from 1977 to 2015 was detailed in director Todd Thompson’s award-winning 2021 documentary, "Woman in Motion."

"We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, 'Star Trek' actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible," NASA tweeted. "She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars."

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.