The story of “Star Trek” legend Nichelle Nichols and how she helped change the nation’s space agency appeared on the big screen for one night only Feb. 2, 2021, in theaters around the country. “Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA” focuses on NASA’s efforts in the late 1970s and ‘80s to recruit people of color and the first female astronauts.
Chester County native and Freed-Hardeman University alumnus John McCall was instrumental in bringing the story to life. It was a project five years in the making. McCall was first introduced to Nichelle Nichols’ work with NASA in 2015 by Todd Thompson, the director of “Woman in Motion.” He had already accumulated a good bit of information and had begun the work of bringing Nichols’ story to the screen.
“This was truly a labor of love for him and it was easy to see he was excited about it,” McCall said. “The more I spoke with him, the more intrigued I became. I feel very lucky he asked me to help.” McCall joined the team of four who wrote the script for the documentary.
“I had heard of Nichelle Nichols, of course, but I had no idea she had helped change modern space travel like she did,” McCall said. Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Nyota Uhuru in “Star Trek: The Original Series” and its film sequels. “I was instantly fascinated with her story and her determination to help NASA on her terms. While NASA was building the space shuttle, she was out recruiting the next wave of astronauts who would become part of history. The more we dove into her story, the more obviously we saw all of the people she touched and the lives she helped to shape.”
Thompson provided information he had gathered, as well as transcripts of his conversations with Nichols. “Then I just dove in,” McCall said. “I think it took us longer to assimilate all of the information than it did to write!” With the help of his friend Google, he continued the research. “Since this was a documentary, we knew that it wouldn’t be like writing a typical screenplay because the process involves piecing together interviews and clips and finding the right flow to tell your story,” according to McCall.
McCall described the collaboration on the script as “phenomenal.” “It seemed that the longer we worked, the more roads were opened to speak to other people and interview them: NASA astronauts, film stars, public politicians. The net her influence spread is pretty vast,” he said.
According to the film’s synopsis, Nichols formed Women in Motion, Inc. in 1977 and began her campaign to increase diversity in NASA. Her efforts resulted in more than 8,000 African-American, Asian and Latino women and men for the agency, despite the bureaucracy’s reluctance to have her involved. Today, NASA credits her with turning it into one of the most diverse independent agencies in the federal government.
In many ways, writing the script was educational for McCall. “I learned so much about Nichelle. It was so difficult for her to be taken seriously, and I love how that didn’t deter her from doing what she knew she needed to do,” he said. He also learned that “when you have a great story, many people want to help you tell it.” People never hesitated to offer their help to make sure her story was told, he explained. Finally, he said, “I also learned when to just let a story tell itself. No frills. No trying to make the story bigger than it was. Nichelle’s story was one that would leave an impact on its own.”
“It was an honor to help tell the story of such an iconic person in science fiction history as well as NASA history,” McCall concluded.
Editor’s Note: John McCall, native of Sweet Lips, Tennessee, and 1993 FHU alumnus, lives in Winter Garden, Florida, with his wife Holly Sewell McCall (FHU Class of 1996), and their three children: Anniston, a freshman at FHU; Grady, 11th grader at West Orange High School; and Wiley, seventh grader at Family Christian School.