For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.
Martin Luther King Jr. to Nichelle Nichols on her role as Lt. Uhura
In Afrofuturism, the “real” world can imitate the fictional world and vice versa. Nowhere is this more evident than in the life of Nichelle Nichols, whose 1966 appearance as Lt. Nyota Uhura of Star Trek captivated fans. An accomplished actor, singer, and dancer, Nichols considered leaving the series after its first season to pursue a career on Broadway. She remained however, due to a chance conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King, a fan of the show’s multicultural vision of the future. King convinced Nichols to stay because of the vital impact she was making as a role model. Later, Nichols worked with NASA to recruit a new generation of Black astronauts.
Though Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Mendez (b. 1942) was the first person of African descent to travel to space (1980), Ed Dwight (b. 1933) was NASA’s first African American astronaut trainee (1961), though he was not ultimately selected. In 1983, Guion Bluford Jr. (b. 1942) became the first African American astronaut to reach space, traveling aboard the Challenger space shuttle. Since then, 21 African Americans have participated in NASA’s astronaut training program, including Mae Jemison, who in 1992 became the first African American woman to reach Space while traveling aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
The West Area Computers at NASA’s Langley Research Center were Black women who worked as “human computers” from 1943 to 1958. Navigating discriminatory hiring practices and segregated facilities, their crucial yet largely unheralded contributions helped NASA achieve spaceflight. In 2019, the women received the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their work as engineers, mathematicians, and physicists. These Black women are part of a tradition that includes Valerie L. Thomas, who developed digital imaging processing systems for NASA’s satellite program, and Christine Darden, a NASA engineer with expertise in supersonic flight.