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Feature Story

"Star Trek" actress Nichelle Nichols (center) visits the Boeing Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft team

NASA/Tom Tschida

"Star Trek" actress Nichelle Nichols visits the Boeing Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft team. She is accompanied (left to right) by NASA's David McBride, Ivor Dawson of The Traveling Space Museum, and Boeing's Al Hoffman and Brad Shaw.

'Star Trek' star visits Boeing Phantom Eye

As Lt. Nyota Uhura from the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” actress Nichelle Nichols saw the future — from the bridge of the USS Starship Enterprise.

Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" television series

NASA

Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" television series (1966-1969), is in character on the bridge of the fictional USS Starship Enterprise.

In late January, nearly 50 years later, she again witnessed the future — this time from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., standing in front of the Boeing Phantom Eye. The High Altitude Long Endurance — or HALE — aircraft is being readied for taxi tests and its first flight. The aircraft, with its 150-foot wingspan, was designed with persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in mind.

In her role as Lt. Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications director, Nichols embraced modern technology that inspired many young viewers. Dryden Center Director David McBride was one of them.

“I was influenced watching ‘Star Trek’ growing up and I think in a big way that led to my career in science and technology,” McBride said. “We’re seeing things like electronic readers and wireless communications. The first place we saw that was on the bridge of the Enterprise and Lt. Uhura was in charge of it.”

Speaking to an audience at the Dryden Center to commemorate diversity and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Nichols challenged her many fans to keep reaching for new frontiers.

“What humankind can dream of … humankind can do — and much more,” Nichols said. “We have not only the opportunity but the duty to keep the space program viable where no man or woman has gone before.”

While Phantom Eye is built for high-flying, days-long missions, not warp speeds, it was no less fascinating to the actress who survived dozens of “missions” aboard the iconic Starfleet voyager USS Enterprise.

Her stop at hangar bays 1, 2, and 3 at NASA Dryden, home to Phantom Eye, surprised many team members. Boeing Phantom Eye Chief Project Engineer Brad Shaw said he looked up and recognized Nichols immediately.

“I grew up watching her,” Shaw said. “It was a thrill to have her come by and learn about our work. She was extremely interested in the propulsion system — the fact that it runs on hydrogen and is environmentally friendly.”

NASA officials and cast members of the "Star Trek" TV show

NASA

In 1976, NASA's Space Shuttle Enterprise rolled out of a Palmdale, Calif., manufacturing plant and was greeted by NASA officials and cast members of the "Star Trek" TV show. From left to right are: NASA Administrator James Fletcher; DeForest Kelley, who portrayed Dr. "Bones" McCoy on the series; George Takei (Mr. Sulu); James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock); series creator Gene Rodenberry; an unnamed NASA official; and, Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov).

Many of the actress’s fans weren’t aware of her contributions promoting opportunities for women and minorities. Working on behalf of NASA advocacy programs in the 1960s and 1970s, Nichols helped encourage women and minorities to become astronaut candidates and aerospace executives — among them, Mae Jemison, the first African-American in space, and current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

After signing autographs and shaking hands with members of the Boeing Phantom Eye team, Nichols continued her tour of the sprawling test center.

But just before she left, Shaw had a special message for the former “Starfleet officer.” He walked over and gave the actress a big hug.

“Thank you for inspiring me to follow a career in aerospace where we can reach beyond our limits and do things like this,” the Phantom Works engineer told Nichols.

Shaw said Nichols smiled and quietly told him, “Thank you for saying that. You don’t know how good that makes me feel.”

For more on the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and Nichelle Nichols' visit, click here.