Hidden Figures Movie, NASA: Research Paper Topics

The Hidden Figures movie provides many interesting research paper topics. It’s a fact-based biography of Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), a black woman mathematician at NASA in the 1960s who helped win the Space Race. The movie also features Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a mechanical engineer, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), a researcher in supersonic flight. These women were literally rocket scientists!

Use Hidden Figures as an interesting research topic. (Credit: BGN)

Use Hidden Figures as an interesting research topic. (Credit: BGN)

We’ve all seen old television images of the Houston control room monitoring the progress of manned space flights. They are filled with only white men in white shirts and buzz cuts. But a diverse group of people helped accomplish NASA’s space race. Hidden Figures is a movie fifty years overdue. It chronicles the work of black women mathematicians, called “calculators” in those days, who did the extremely complicated mathematical computations needed to send a rocket to the moon and back.

Science versus segregation

For your term paper, you could write about segregation in the sciences. It’s hard to fathom now, but at the same time as highly trained scientists were figuring out how to accomplish man’s most complicated scientific achievement, the state of Virginia still believed in separating blacks from whites in Hampton, Virginia, at the Langley Research Center, a scientific facility of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) (the predecessor of NASA), even as it was progressive enough to hire female mathematicians.

Writing in “‘Hidden Figures’ and the journey to celebrate NASA’s black female pioneers,” posted December 23, 2016, at PBS.org, Nsikan Akpan commented that hiring black mathematicians “transformed Hampton and Langley into a bastion of aeronautical supremacy, while also eroding racial divides over subsequent decades. Virginia was one of the last states to abandon Jim Crow policies such as segregated schools… [Hidden Figures book author Margot Lee] Shetterly traces Hampton’s trail to integration, showing how America struggled with racial reforms through the lens of one progressive city and the nation’s space race with the Soviet Union.”

Racial progress at NASA

You could also write your paper on ways that NASA in the 1960s bucked the trend of racial disparity. Necessity eventually won out over racial discrimination. When Katherine Johnson was the only person capable of doing the complicated mathematical computations to put John Glenn into orbit, she was transferred to an all-male, white department. When her manager learned that she literally had to run to the only available colored bathroom at the other end of the facility, NASA made changes.

“I was angry, at first, that we didn’t know about these women, black and white,” said Octavia Spencer in “‘Hidden Figures’ Stars Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner Talk NASA’s Pioneering African American Women,” by Bob Strauss, posted Los Angeles Daily News, December 24, 2016. “But then, when you put it in context, NASA was much more progressive than the rest of our society because they did integrate the workplace, they did allow black engineers to work alongside their white counterparts.”

Hollywood has few roles for black women

Another good research paper topic is to discuss how Hollywood seldom has prominent roles for black women outside traditional roles. In “Hollywood Needs More ‘Hidden Figures’ To Fix Its Diversity Problem,” posted in Huffington Post January 11, 2017, Austin S. Harris wrote: “The problem is that society chooses to focus on certain films, and certain portrayals, because on some subconscious level, the movies and characters fit society’s expectation of where black women belong.” He notes that only once has a black woman won an Oscar for Best Actress (Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball). Others have won for Best Supporting Actress for roles as a slave, a maid, an abusive welfare mother—none for a black woman with a college degree. Harris said, “That’s why as a filmmaker, I will continue to create and promote art that mirrors the diverse world we live in.”

For more information, check out Questia’s library on NASA and Segregation.

Who are some prominent historical black women you’d like to see a movie about?

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