'Her mission continues': 'Star Trek' pioneer Nichelle Nichols, her FAMU ties and legacy

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David Teek, a Florida A&M University staff member who has been a huge "Star Trek" fan since his teen years, met the late "Star Trek" actress Nichelle Nichols for the first time in 2011.

“It was at the final launch of Atlantis for STS-135. I managed to get myself onto the VIP floor there,” said Teek, FAMU's export control coordinator. “I had a nice conversation with her about how I've been a longtime fan, and I thanked her for everything she did to help change the space program.”

“She smiled and said thank you,” Teek, 63, added, “and I kind of let her be at that point because you don't want to be that guy!"

But three years later the two would cross paths again during the production of a documentary on Nichols and her achievements in diversifying the aerospace industry.

Nichols's recruiting tour even brought her to FAMU, where plans are now underway to create an academic center focusing on women in STEM fields.

Nichols died July 30 at the age of 89 due to natural causes but her legacy lives on as she played roles that went beyond the groundbreaking Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" series from 1966 to 1969.

Not only did Nichols become the first Black woman to play a lead role on television, but she was chosen by NASA to work on astronaut recruitment, where she recruited 8,000 candidates during her time with the space agency.

Opinion column: Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols boldly went where civil rights movement needed her to go

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Nichols visited FAMU as part of NASA recruitment

Nichols recruited the first women and minority astronauts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. FAMU was one of Nichols’ stops during her recruitment tours, where she talked to African Americans and other minority college students about joining the space program.

In 2021, the documentary "Woman in Motion" was released to highlight Nichols’ accomplishments of recruiting trailblazing astronauts. Teek was a co-producer who started working on the project in 2014.

National civil rights attorney Ben Crump of Tallahassee also served as a co-producer of the film.

More about Ben Crump: 8 things to know about Tallahassee civil rights attorney Ben Crump

Director and Producer Todd Thompson (left), the late actress Nichelle Nichols (center), Producer David Teek (back), and Producer Tim Franta (right) take photos for the documentary film "Woman in Motion."
Director and Producer Todd Thompson (left), the late actress Nichelle Nichols (center), Producer David Teek (back), and Producer Tim Franta (right) take photos for the documentary film "Woman in Motion."

“We were really amazed at how much work she had done,” Teek told the Tallahassee Democrat. “She worked with NASA on developing public service announcements and she went on a ton of speaking engagements, including a lot of one-on-ones with potential astronaut recruits to convince them to submit the application to NASA.”

The documentary’s production team originally planned on having it shown in theaters, but the release during COVID-19 led to a few screenings being available through pay-per-view services and streaming platforms such as Paramount+ instead, Teek said.

Final Frontier: Nichelle Nichols kept deep connections with NASA, Space Coast after her role on 'Star Trek'

Plans in works to bring Nichols's story to Tallahassee

The Challenger Learning Center IMAX Theatre in Tallahassee is trying to arrange a screening and will provide updates on its website once the dates are confirmed.

Efforts of the Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee, which is the K-12 educational outreach facility of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, also include continuing Nichelle Nichols’s legacy of recruiting women, young girls and people of color into STEM fields.

"The Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee is deeply saddened by the passing of Nichelle Nichols," executive director Alan Hanstein said. "She was a trailblazer whose influence in recruiting women and minorities to NASA is one that we strive to echo every day in bringing STEM education to students from across the region."

David Teek is an export control coordinator at Florida A&M University and is also the co-producer of the documentary film "Woman in Motion."
David Teek is an export control coordinator at Florida A&M University and is also the co-producer of the documentary film "Woman in Motion."

FAMU eyeing aerospace education center

Teek is working with FAMU’s College of Education on a STEM education initiative that will be proposed to NASA. It involves creating an aerospace education center within the college with a focus on preparing women and minorities for STEM careers.

“Now that the film has been completed, and with Nichelle's passing, I think a lot of us are looking at how we can make sure her mission continues and that we are creating pathways of opportunities,” Teek said.

Nichelle Nichols was a Star Trek actress who also played a major role in pioneering the NASA recruitment of trailblazing astronauts.
Nichelle Nichols was a Star Trek actress who also played a major role in pioneering the NASA recruitment of trailblazing astronauts.

Total Learning Research Institute President Kerry Joels, who currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is part of the team working on the education initiative. The research institute is an educational and scientific organization that works closely with FAMU on aerospace resources.

Similar to Teek, Joels also had a long-lasting relationship with Nichols.

“She was a wonderful part of our lives,” Joels said. “Our family got together to have a private memorial service for her, sharing stories and praying. We just loved her very much.”

“She literally changed the space program and affected millions of lives in terms of what she represented,” Joels added. “People could see themselves in a future in space and a future in science and technology, and she was just an inspiration. More importantly, she was a wonderful person.”

Contact Tarah Jean at tjean@tallahassee.com or follow her on twitter @tarahjean_.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: 'Star Trek' star Nichelle Nichols, FAMU ties helped STEM center grow