Fans of “Star Trek” already know that Nichelle Nichols is not just the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, the iconic character on the original series. Her intelligent portrayal of the chief communications officer of the USS Enterprise ended up inspiring an entire generation of actual astronauts. The notion of being a woman who could fly in outer space is cited by more than one NASA employee.
So it’s only fitting that on the 45th anniversary of the "Star Trek" series debut, Nichols is at the Kennedy Space Center today to meet with spectators and witness NASA’s latest efforts at expanding our knowledge of the moon and future manned space missions.
NASA plans to take the first step in returning to the moon by launching a Delta II rocket with a payload dubbed the GRAIL mission (short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory). The twin spacecrafts will be flung into orbit with the moon, where they will map the planet’s gravitational field.
It’s all in an effort to better understand how the moon and the earth came into existence, but also it’s a first step in possibly setting up a permanent base on our closest celestial neighbor.
Scientists know that the moon’s gravity is uneven, and these crafts will help us better understand the interior composition of the moon and why gravity is uneven across the surface.
The moon is actually what sparked Nichols’ own interest with space. It was President John F. Kennedy’s inspirational speech in 1962, and not Gene Roddenberry’s space opus that hooked her.
“I was always fascinated with the space program,” Nichols told CNN’s American Morning. “Fifty years ago when Kennedy said, ‘The moon this decade and back again safely’ - even the finest minds said we can’t go to the moon and back in this decade. But the President said it would be done.”
Nichols was so passionate about space that she worked as a recruiter for NASA from 1977 to 1978. She has been credited with recruiting thousands of potential astronauts, including Guion "Guy" Bluford, the first African American astronaut, Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, as well as Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair, two astronauts who perished in the Challenger explosion in 1986.
“If I were recruiting today, I think I would do the very same thing I did to begin with. What the mind can imagine, the mind can achieve. As long as space is out there, there’s a background on which to paint our genius and to go where no woman or man has gone before,” she said.
NASA is certainly hoping that people will be inspired again by their quest to understand the universe, even without an operational shuttle program. GRAIL is partnering with Sally Ride Science to start “MoonKAM,” an education program for students to explore some of the information the craft is gathering about the moon.
In addition to the launch, Thursday also happens to be a special day for Nichols and the Star Trek family, marking the 45th anniversary of the show's original airing. The show, Nichols says, has not only done a lot for space exploration, but for all dreamers.
“I was fortunate enough to live at the right time and the right place, and to have the innovative mind and genius of Gene Roddenberry to create a world in the 23rd century…and wrap ourselves in that wonderful imagination and make it a reality to go forth in space,” Nichols said.
Regarding NASA’s Grail launch on Thursday, Nichols says this is just another step towards our further exploration of space.
“We have only just begun,” Nichols said.