From 1966 to 1969 actress Nichelle Nichols explored intergalactic space as Lieutenant Uhura, the sexy communications officer aboard the starship Enterprise (and she's still floating around out there on Star Trek reruns).

Today she is the sweetheart not just of Trekkies but of real astronauts and their bosses at NASA for her part in popularizing the upcoming space shuttle. It will be put into orbit in the spring of 1979. Until Nichols signed on to help recruit crew members for the shuttle last February, NASA had received only 1,500 applicants for the 30 jobs available—15 pilots and 15 scientists and engineers. The agency had expected thousands and, worse yet, there were almost no applications from qualified women and minorities. Four months after Nichols' company, Women in Motion, Inc., was hired, NASA had 4,411 applicants, including over 200 from minorities and 470 women. Deadline for applying is June 30.

In spite of all her years aboard a TV studio spaceship, Nichols' romance with the real thing did not begin until a 1975 Star Trek convention. "I heard Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer of NASA and it blew my mind when I found out all the benefits we're enjoying as a result of space research," Nichols says.

She visited NASA and other space facilities and her enthusiasm led to the recruiting assignment. Von Puttkamer says proudly, "She spent about a year educating herself."

Nichols, 44, seventh of 10 children, was born in Robbins, Ill. (a haven for interracial marriages which her paternal grandfather helped found). She grew up in Chicago. An actress since 14, Nichols dropped out of high school for an acting job—and later took an exam to earn her diploma. Primarily a stage actress, she has toured in The Blacks and co-produced the James Baldwin play Amen Corner. Along the way she was twice married and divorced. A 25-year-old son, Kyle Johnson, also an actor, lives with her in Beverly Hills.

In spite of the recent shelving of a proposed feature-length film of Star Trek, Nichols-Uhura expects someday to be at the communications console again. She is proud of that role. "Lieutenant Uhura is a very strong and positive human being who lives 300 years from now. She is pulling at me to open the doorway to her universe. I'm trying to see that we have a sound space program in which all people are represented and involved. It's good old IDIC—infinite diversity in infinite combinations."