In the 1930s, three decades before Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, Buck Rogers had his own Western-like space adventures—in comic books and on the silver screen. When NASA got off the ground in the 1960s, the first generation of astronauts looked just like him: all white men, just without ray guns.
A half-century later, sci-fi has shot past real-world space programs. There are still Buck Rogerses in the 21st century, but there are also Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Andor’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), characters that show the breadth of diversity in the world in the way early sci-fi, and early NASA, never really did. Shows like those, as well as series like The Expanse and Foundation, have remained strides ahead of the US space agency, which is just now preparing to send the first woman and the first person of color to walk on the moon in 2026.
“We have this Star Trek vision of men and women of different races working together, which first aired in 1966 in the midst of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the second wave of the women’s movement,” says Margaret Weitekamp, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum and author of the book Space Craze: America’s Enduring Fascination with Real and Imagined Spaceflight, out today. “That is something that has become an ideal and that we also know was used by NASA in the late 1970s to recruit a more diverse class of astronauts for the space shuttle program.”
The members of NASA’s first batch of astronauts, the ones that assembled before Trek premiered, all looked similar to each other. Weitekamp points out that when those men got together for photos—they were all white, Christian, married, military-trained jet pilots—they had to stand in alphabetical order so that those writing the captions wouldn’t get them mixed up. Such an image would appear jarring to most people today, and even to some back then. But Trek and its creator, Gene Roddenberry, offered a very different view of the future—one they hoped could steer things in the present. In the late ’60s, Martin Luther King Jr. convinced Nichelle Nichols to keep playing Uhura on Star Trek because, he said, “When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.” Nichols went on to launch a campaign to bring diversity to NASA, shooting recruitment videos and traveling to universities looking for astronauts. In 1978, 8,000 Black, Asian, and Latinx men and women applied to NASA’s astronaut class; of the 35 new recruits, six women and four people of color were among them.
In 1983, long after the Apollo moon program, the US launched the first American woman, Sally Ride, and the first Black American, Guion Bluford—both members of that first class Nichols recruited—into space. Europe first sent women astronauts to space in the early 1990s. The Soviets were ahead of everyone, launching the first woman and the person of color, Valentina Tereshkova and the Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, in 1963 and 1980, respectively.
But while more women and people of color have traveled into low Earth orbit and to the International Space Station over the past couple of decades, they’re still very much in the minority. Of the 600-plus people who have gone to space so far, only 75 have been women, and 18 have been Black, five of whom were Black women, led by Mae Jemison.
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At the same time, space science fiction has evolved far beyond the era of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Those initial series and comic strips portrayed space travel like a Western, with white, male pioneers venturing into the new frontier, not so unlike the white settlers of the Americas, “discovering” new terrains already occupied by Indigenous populations.
The Star Trek series of the 1990s told different kinds of stories, led by the first Black and the first female captains of the franchise. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5 each included different kinds of aliens and humans of different races and nationalities together on a space station who have to figure out how to work together and find collective strength, Weitekamp says. That’s a far cry from the aliens in Buck Rogers, who were sometimes simply played by a brunette (rather than the blond hero), and who would be forgotten when the next adventure came.
Today, diverse sci-fi series abound. Star Trek: Discovery has Martin-Green helming a ship, in a cast that includes trans and nonbinary actors, and the show boldly inspired other new series in the franchise. Obi-Wan Kenobi has Moses Ingram as Inquisitor Reva, The Expanse has Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata, and Doctor Who has Jodie Whittaker as the first woman Doctor, to name a few.
But not all of those new sci-fi faces arrived without backlash. Conservative critics and even some Trek fans derided Discovery and the spinoff Strange New Worlds as “woke,” ignoring that Star Trek has always had diverse casts and stories with challenging race- and gender-related issues. Hundreds of Star Wars fans sent racist messages to Ingram, which led to Ewan McGregor, who plays Obi-Wan, and Anson Mount, who plays the Strange New Worlds captain, coming to her defense. NASA’s more modest steps also received criticism for promoting “woke identity politics,” according to one account. But those accounts merely served as a nostalgic attempt to whitewash earlier gender- and race-based discrimination and ignore that much of the public has moved beyond the Buck Rogers archetype.
When the first woman and first person of color finally land on the moon as part of the Artemis program, it will constitute a giant leap for humankind. Commercial space jaunts could offer additional opportunities, too, even if many of the passengers to date have been wealthy, white men. So far, the two orbital commercial spaceflights have been led by white men, including the billionaire Jared Isaacman on the SpaceX Inspiration4 spaceflight, but we’re seeing others as well, including two women on that flight, like Sian Proctor, the fourth Black woman to travel to space. In these early days of a new era of spaceflight, whether the private industry makes the same shift that space agencies are making remains to be seen.
At its core, science fiction will always be ahead of the real world. Its purpose is to look at what is and imagine what could be, in the context of the challenges and ideals of the day. It helped bring NASA into the 20th century. One day it'll bring space travel to the 24th, too.