Last week, Nichelle Nichols, the pioneering actress who protrayed Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura participated in one of Reddit for one of the website’s popular Ask Me Anything sessions. During the session, she told the audience that she is set to fly on an real NASA mission. Nichols won’t actually reach outer space – but she’ll be about two-thirds as high up as a conventional plane can reasonably go, at about 70,000 feet, or twice as high as a commercial jet liner (the maximum altitude for a winged conventional aircraft is about 135,000 feet, or 23 miles). She will be flying aboard the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) aircraft, which is a specially modified 747 hauling a large telescope.
“SOFIA does not, sadly, fly into space,” Nichols explained to fans in the online Q&A. “It’s an airborne observatory, a massive telescope mounted inside a 747 flying as high as is possible… I do hope someone gets some great pictures.”
SOFIA is designed to make observations in the infrared optical frequenceis, of planetary atmospheres, distant supernova, comets, and other objects not easily from the ground. Flying into the stratosphere also moves the telescope aboard the plane above interference from water vapor.
Nichols will be one of the first non-essential personnel ever to fly on the research vessel. She’ll be fielding questions from Twitter users alongside SOFIA personnel. The SOFIA team will make observations of star forming regions on its flight tomorrow, as well as observing a protostar in the Constellation Taurus. To follow along on the 10 hour flight, be watching tweets from Nichol’s Twitter account as well as the one for the SOFIA Telescope. The flight is set for an 8 p.m. PST departure from California. It will fly over Nevada, Colorado and other states, crossing over into Alberta air space, then returning to Southern California.
In the Reddit interview, Nichols also shared a fascinating anecdote regarding Martin Luther King, Jr., a Trekkie who convinced her to stay on Star Trek in the late ’60s. Here are her words:
“I was offered a role on Broadway. I was a singer on stage long before I was an actress, and Broadway was always a dream to me. I was ready to leave Star Trek and pursue what I’d always wanted to do. Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of ‘Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become an symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.’ That got me thinking about how it would look for fans of color around the country if they saw me leave. I saw that this was bigger than just me. I got to do a lot of singing after the series ended.”
Nichols had recently had a small stroke, but is going to near space anyway, proving that even at age 82, she still has the right stuff.