What was really great about Star Trek when I was growing up as a little girl is not only did they have Lt. Uhura played by Nichelle Nichols as a technical officer […] At the same time, they had this crew that was composed of people from all around the world and they were working together to learn more about the universe.  So that helped to fuel my whole idea that I could be involved in space exploration as well as in the sciences.

                                               – NASA Astronaut Mae Jemison (Then & Now, 2005)

Nichelle Nichols ("Lieutenant Uhura") in 1977, talking to students about The Space Shuttle

In 1966, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura was a groundbreaking character. As the Communications Officer on the Starship Enterprise, Uhura provided a vision of a successful, career-oriented African American woman previously absent from late-1960s television fare. The portrayal resonated with audiences; the studio was flooded with fan mail about Uhura. While Star Trek provided an appealing utopian fantasy of a future devoid of racism, such ideals were not reflected at Star Trek’s studio, Desilu Productions. In her 1994 autobiography, actress Nichelle Nichols recounts how poorly she was treated by studio executives, who not only cut Uhura’s lines and screen time, but also conspired to hide the volume of fan mail that Nichols’ performance was generating. When she learned that the mail room clerks had been ordered to withhold her mail, Nichols decided to quit. Shortly after reaching this decision, Nichols met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and learned that he was a big fan of the show because, as he said, it was about “[m]en and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals” (p. 164). He convinced her to continue with “the first nonstereotypical role on television” for an African American actor . He argued that Uhura’s cultural impact meant that Nichols had a responsibility to stay with the show because “for the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people–as we should be” (pp. 164-165).

Constance Penley theorized that Star Trek has been particularly successful in creating a forum for “citizens to engage in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be human in a technological and multicultural world” and that this success provided the basis for a “symbolic union” between Trek and NASA which benefited both the show and the space agency (1997, p. 16-17). This union is seen most dramatically in the relationship between Nichelle Nichols and NASA.

Star Trek was cancelled in 1969; the show’s demise gave rise to the phenomenon of Trek fandom. Starting in the early 1970s, Nichols and other cast members became regular guests at Star Trek conventions. In 1975, Nichols and the rest of the cast attended a large convention in Chicago with an unusual featured speaker: Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer, NASA’s science director and a fan of the show. Although attendance at prior conventions had demonstrated that many NASA employees were Star Trek fans, this 1975 convention marked the first time that NASA had an official presence at a convention. Nichols describes being inspired by Puttkamer’s presentation about the space program, but her enjoyment was marred by the space agency’s poor record of inclusion:

There was no one in the astronaut corps who looked anything like me. There were no women, no Blacks, no Asians, no Latinos. I could not reconcile the term “United States space program” with an endeavor that did not involve anyone except white males. No offense to those fine, brave men, but if we in America tell our children they can be all that they dream, why weren’t there women and minority astronauts? Thousands of fans wrote thanking me for Uhura’s inspiration. Little Black girls and boys, Latino and Asian children had a legitimate right to share in that dream. Things had to change (Nichols, 1994, pp. 210-211).

Soon, Nichols was an outspoken supporter of space exploration and was appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Space Institute (NSI), a civilian space advocacy organization. In a 1977 speech, she outlined her criticisms regarding the lack of diversity at NASA and emphasized how it was hurting the space program’s legitimacy with the general public.

NASA knew that it had a problem. The agency was recruiting astronauts for the new Space Shuttle program, which was open to astronauts who were not pilots. While this new openness theoretically meant that a wider range of people could become astronauts, women and minorities were not applying to the program. NASA was embarrassed by its inability to recruit astronauts who did not fit the image of the white, male astronaut which had been the norm throughout the history of the agency. Officials at NASA knew of Nichols’ activities in space advocacy, and they were well aware that the Uhura character still resonated powerfully with African Americans and women from all backgrounds. In an effort to change, NASA hired Nichols to run an outreach program with the goal of increasing diversity in the pool of potential astronauts. The program was a success—Nichols was responsible for dramatically increasing the total number of applications as well as the percentage of applications from women and minorities (Nichols, 1994). Astronauts who were recruited through this program include Guion Bluford (the first African American in space), Sally Ride (the first US woman in space), and Ron McNair (the second African American astronaut; killed in Challenger disaster) (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, n.d.).

The first African American woman in space, Mae Jemison (quoted above), was “recruited” not by Nichols, but by the character of Uhura herself. In many interviews, Jemison has recounted how her girlhood dreams of spaceflight began with watching Star Trek. When she was on the space shuttle, Jemison used Uhura’s signature line “Hailing frequencies open” during the course of her duties (Penley, 1997, p. 19).

The story of Uhura—and, indeed, of Nichelle Nichols herself—provides an entry point for a broader discussion about the importance of diverse media representations of people in careers related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). This is the topic of my dissertation, Media and the Making of Scientists. Lieutenant Uhura inspired a generation of women, not just at NASA, but also across the STEM disciplines. During the course of my dissertation research, when asked about childhood media exposure to images of science and technology, both African American and white women in STEM careers described Uhura as a positive influence. An African American, female aerospace engineer said of Uhura, “I do realize that, for me, her just being there, [that there was] such a multicultural team [which] included a black woman, helped me to envision my being there.”

In my dissertation, I explore what interviewees from groups traditionally under-represented in real-world science have to say about how such groups have been portrayed in the media. First, I contextualize this material by touching on the issue of real-world diversity in STEM fields. This is followed by an examination of what the study participants think about the lack of representation for women and minority scientists, as well as their reactions to those representations which do exist. Then, I consider why science fiction, as a genre, is a particularly rich arena for talking about these issues. Finally, I discuss some aspects of the media landscape for the next generation of scientists, taking into account interviews with teenagers as well as the media outreach efforts of two of the adult respondents.

Copyright © 2016 visualinquiry