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Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols closes hailing frequencies

Singer and actor was a trailblazer on and off the screen

OBIT Nichelle Nichols, who long ago achieved immortality in her role as Uhura on Star Trek, has died at the age of 89.

Born in 1932, her four-octave vocal range saw her perform with Duke Ellington at the tender age of 14 and sparked aspirations to become a singer. When the chance to act on TV came up, she saw it as a stepping-stone to an eventual Broadway career.

Then Star Trek happened. She wasn't the first woman of color on American TV screens, nor even the first in a prominent role. But she was the first who wasn't playing some form of domestic servant. As chief communications officer, Uhura was a respected member of the Enterprise bridge crew even if her character was lumbered with catchphrases regarding opening and closing "hailing frequencies."

The character was nonetheless groundbreaking. As Whoopi Goldberg famously put it:

I just saw a Black woman on the TV, and she ain't no maid.

The name of her Trek character – Lieutenant Uhura – was Nichols's suggestion. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry hadn't come up with a name for the character, and when Nichols met with him about the role she was reading a book called "Uhuru" — a Swahili word meaning "freedom." Roddenberry feminized it a bit by changing the final letter.

After a year on the show, Nichols felt she had enjoyed the experience but wanted to move on. Broadway, after all, was calling. No less a personage than Martin Luther King Jr persuaded her not to leave. He felt her presence on the show was crucial to the nascent Civil Rights movement, because it showed that women and African Americans could achieve anything.

Uhura became the role of her lifetime.

Though the original Star Trek TV series lasted only three years, the show became a mainstay of syndication and a touchstone of popular culture. Nichols was also involved in the short-lived animated Star Trek series in 1973, and then returned for six feature films from 1979 to 1991. Her part in the movies expanded well beyond communications. A fan favourite moment is the scene in Star Trek III when she forces a young lieutenant into a closet at phaser-point so she can beam her crewmates aboard the Enterprise.

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Possibly her most frustrating scene was the moment in Star Trek VI when the Enterprise crew switches off the universal translator and tries communicating with Klingon sentries using phrasebooks. It's played for laughs, but Nichols was annoyed. She felt that after such a long and distinguished career as a Starfleet communications officer, Uhura would surely have been able to speak Klingon.

Notably, in JJ Abrams' series of Star Trek films (in which Uhura is played by Zoe Saldana) and the prequel series Strange New Worlds (in which Uhura is played by Celia Rose Gooding) the character is a xenolinguist and fluent in multiple languages. Those versions of Uhura also have a first name — Nyota. It's also a Swahili word, meaning "star." As played by Nichols, the character never had a canonical first name.

With Star Trek having made her more of an icon than an actor, major roles became hard to come by. However, she parlayed her status into helping NASA to inspire women and people of color into the space program. Among the notable astronauts who were drawn to NASA by Nichols's efforts were Guion Bluford (the first African-American astronaut), Sally Ride (the first female American astronaut), and Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair, who were both on board the Challenger shuttle when it exploded in 1986.

If and when NASA returns to the Moon in coming years, it anticipates that a woman will be the first to land on the surface. If that does come to pass — and especially if she is a woman of color — Nichelle Nichols will have undoubtedly played her part in making it happen.

Nichols' surviving son Kyle Johnson posted news of his mother's death to Facebook.

"Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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." ®

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