Saturday, 6 March 2010

Decisions we take, ripples we make

In 1966 Gene Roddenberry cast Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura (above) in a new TV series called Star Trek. Roddenberry wanted Nichol's Uhura character to represent his ardent belief that women - and women of all colours - should play heroic, leadership roles in humanity's future, especially in space exploration. 

However, only the intervention of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King persuaded a disenchanted Nichols, who had set her career sights on Broadway, to stay with Star Trek after a first season where advert breaks largely diminished Uhura's role. "You have the first non-stereotypical role in television, in a major TV series of importance," King told Nichols.

"Dr King raised my consciousness. I realised that what I do has an impact on other people's lives," said Nichols in an interview I conducted with the star (below) at her Californian home in 1992. "Every drop in an ocean has a ripple effect. I'm proud people saw me in the 23rd Century and that this changed their lives. 

"One young woman, who was a child then, wanted to be Uhura's daughter. The young woman turned on the TV one day, looked at me, and said,'My God, we are there! We're in the 23rd Century. I can be anything I want to be.' And she did; she became a superstar. Her name is Whoopi Goldberg." (below)

NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) employed Nichols to recruit astronaut candidates during the 1970s and 1980s. One young student, so inspired by Nichols but too young to apply, directed her studies towards qualifying for NASA's astronaut training programme. Nichols recalled: "She believed me when I said 'you can do it, you can fly, you can go into space and be anything you want to be'. Her name is Mae Jemison."

Jemison (above) became the first African American woman astronaut, a famous member of the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September 1992. "She looks just like Uhura," said Nichols. "She could be my daughter."

Nichols had toured NASA facilities with TV crews during a hectic four months in 1978 trying to recruit women and minorities as potential astronauts for the Space Shuttle programme. As a result, NASA received 1,649 applications from women, almost all qualified in the areas NASA needed, and over 1,000 qualified applications from minorities. NASA raised its potential astronaut corps from 30 to 40, finally recruiting six women and five minority astronauts. Nichols' recruits included Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut and Sally Ride, the first woman American astronaut. "I was very proud," said Illinois-born Nichols. "That was very fulfilling."

However, tragedy rippled just 73 seconds after the Space Shuttle Challenger Flight-51L launched on 28 January, 1986. A booster failure caused an explosion that resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts, including three of Nichols' recruits - Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka.

"The tragedy was very painful," explained Nichols. "But they didn't perish sitting on a rock thinking about it, they perished going forward to discover. Space is a new frontier. In that exploration, there will be tragedies with people giving their lives. Peaceful exploration of space in our time is possible. That's not science fiction. That's a fact. 

"The fantasy of yesterday is the fact of tomorrow. We can do, and go, and be anything we want to be. There's a saying in the Bible, 'As a man thinketh, so is he.' 
I say, if you can dream it, you can do it."

The crew of Space Shuttle Challenger Flight 51-L 
(above, left to right, back row) 
Ellison Onizuka, Christa MaAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Jusy Resnik 
(front) Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair

Snippets of the interview with Nichelle Nichols featured in Black Sci-Fi (1992), directed by Terrence Francis. The Moonlight Films documentary, commissioned and transmitted by the BBC, also featured interviews with authors Samuel R. Delany, Steven Barnes and the now sadly missed, Octavia Butler.

Paul Coleman, London, March 2010

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