As if singing on tour with Duke Ellington and being one of the first African American actresses to play a character other than a maid wasn’t enough, Nichelle Nichols can now add the role of NASA crewmember to her resume. Famous for her portrayal of Chief Communications Officer Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise on the original Star Trek series, Nichols will soon be a part of a flight mission aboard the aerial observatory known as SOFIA, a research plane operated by NASA.
SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and is a modified 747SP aircraft. It carries a high-powered telescope that can see things that ground telescopes cannot always capture. While it doesn’t actually travel into outer space, the SOFIA plane reaches altitudes from about 39,000 feet to 45,000 feet. This allows the plane to get above the water vapor that lingers around the Earth’s atmosphere. This vapor can prevent some telescopes from getting accurate pictures because the water droplets in the vapor can block infrared rays from reaching the ground.
The SOFIA project is a joint effort between NASA and German space agency DLR and has been in operation since May of 2014. The plane is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California and the team of scientists and researchers that interpret the data is collects operate out of NASA’s Ames Research Center, further north in Mountain View, CA. The plane carries a 2.5 meter gyro-stablized telescope as well as cameras, spectrometers, and a photometer. All of this equipment can be easily changed out and more is expected to be added in 2016.
However, the SOFIA plane has never carried a crewmember like Nichols before. At 82 years young, she will be the oldest person to serve aboard the plane, but she’s used to blazing a trail in her career. Her character, Lt. Uhura, was an inspiration to many and the inclusion of woman of color in a role like hers was groundbreaking when the series aired in the 1960s. In an interview with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson Nichols credits civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with encouraging her to stay on the show when she wanted to leave after the first season. Just a day after telling Gene Roddenberry that she wanted to leave the show, she met Dr. King at a fundraiser. He told her what a big fan he was and how important her role was to so many and the following week she decided to stay with the show after all.
Nichols suffered a small stroke in early June 2015, but is feeling more than up to the task of being aboard the NASA flight. In interviews she has stated that being selected to ride to the stratosphere is a “Dream come true.” Her flight is scheduled for September 15, 2015. Trekkies and others can follow the SOFIA flights on Twitter Keeping up with Ms. Nichols might be a little harder since she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. Check out her adventures on her Facebook page and see how she flies and watch the video below for more information.
I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.