Pioneering ‘Star Trek’ actress Nichelle Nichols dies at age 89

In a sad development for Star Trek fans around the world, trailblazing Black actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the original series, has died at the age of 89, as NBC News reports.

Nichols’ passing was said to have been the result of natural causes and was confirmed by her son who wrote on his mother’s website, “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.”

An Illinois native, Nichols was working as a dancer and choreographer when she was discovered by famed musician Duke Ellington, and though she achieved accolades in that realm, she eventually made her way to the small screen when she appeared in Star Trek‘s 1966 debut.

Nichols worked collaboratively with show creator Gene Roddenberry to turn Uhura into a character who embodied a type of dominance and authoritative bearing not typical in female roles of the era, particularly not those filled by Black women.

When the original iteration of the series ended, Nichols put her considerable talents to work for NASA, recording public service announcements and assisting in astronaut recruitment campaigns which reportedly attracted the likes of Sally Ride, later writing, [i]n motivating them as others once did me, it’s as if my life had come back, full circle, to where the dreams of a young woman began.”

Marking the actress’ passing, NASA issued a statement saying “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”

As Variety noted, news of Nichols’ death prompted a flood of tributes and reactions from fans and former colleagues alike, with Star Trek co-star George Takei writing on Twitter, “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”

William Shatner, with whom Nichols engaged in one of the first televised interracial kisses during their tenure on Star Trek, remarked, “She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the U.S. and throughout the world.”

Nichols’ life was also commemorated by President Joe Biden, who said in a statement Sunday night, “Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are cornerstones of every society,” and that is a sentiment certainly shared by the friends, family, and world of devoted fans she leaves behind.