Tim Peake and Bringing a Country Together

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

     One of high points for the United Kingdom this year was Major Tim Peake's mission aboard the International Space Station, which began on December 15, 2015 and ended on June 18, 2016. During those six months, Major Peake fascinated and inspired people back home in Britain and throughout the world by carrying out mission objectives alongside his fellow ISS crew members from other countries, such as repairing a failed voltage regulator which made for Peake becoming the first British astronaut to participate in a spacewalk.

      Along the way, he kept everyone up-to-date with his engaging social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, including his participation in the London Marathon on a treadmill – making him the second person to run a marathon in space, various videos highlighting his life aboard the ISS, his support for British sports teams, and remarks for occasions such as New Year’s Day and the Queen’s 90th birthday.

     Perhaps my favorite aspect of Major Peake's journey was when he shared photographs of various locations in the US, UK, and throughout the world from the ISS, including fabulous views of picturesque auroras. It is indeed true that one cannot fully appreciate the world unless it is viewed from that vantage point.

     For Major Peake, it all must have been an incredible experience – one which he appeared to thoroughly enjoy for every minute. Even before he returned home, he was being celebrated as a hero throughout the UK and there was great interest in his mission from the public via several platforms, particularly social media. As the first British ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut and only the second Briton to wear the Union Flag patch in space, Peake was conferred the Freedom of the City by his hometown of Chichester and the Queen made him a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his services to research and scientific education – all while he was still aboard the ISS.

     Having returned from space, Major Peake now intends to embark on a tour of the United Kingdom this month, during which he will visit all four capital cities of the country (London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast), as well as Leicester, Manchester, Salford, and Glasgow. According to Principa, Major Peake will be “will be giving presentations at each city, giving his first-hand account about life onboard the ISS and talking about the important science experiments he conducted during his mission.”

     Alongside Major Peake for part of this tour will be our own Colonel Tim Kopra, a NASA astronaut who was a crewmate with Peake aboard the ISS. The two Tim’s (who look quite similar in appearance) will be in Belfast, Edinburgh, and London in what is expected to be an engaging series of events about their time working and living in space, as well as inspiring others to become astronauts, so that they may explore space and make new discoveries for the benefit of mankind. On a wider scale, there is the potential for Britain to develop its own spaceport and having more people interested in space and space travel may well provide additional impetus for such a spaceport to be built. With regard to Tim Peake, there has been an ambitious education and outreach initiative in which the UK Space Agency has invested £3 million to engage over a million young people into his mission and so this tour is also a way for him to thank the British public for their support.

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain)   - ISS047-E-017191

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS047-E-017191

     On that matter, he remarked that he had been “extremely touched” by that support before, during, and after the ISS mission, and made a particular mention about watching the launch parties attended by so many in the four capitals as he ascended into space last December. Having viewed those celebrations, Major Peake now looks forward to the tour allowing him to partake in those celebrations himself and to thank as many people as possible.

     One hopes that he will receive hearty thanks from the people of a United Kingdom - wherever they live and are from - who are grateful for his service to the country. In these uncertain times, Peake shows what people ought to aspire to be, and is therefore an inspiration and an example to follow because of the hard work and dedication that has brought him this far, the grace and humility he has shown along with an uplifting personality, and for his love of country.

     Throughout his mission, Major Peake made it known that he was proud to be British – with his tribute to Her Majesty on her 90th birthday and frequently having the Union Flag nearby in his social media posts – and I do believe that this upcoming tour may be a way to celebrate what is good and decent about being British and sharing in the achievements of a British man which were made possible in part by the UK and its people at large. It may be asking too much for the Peake tour to be anything along the lines of what we have witnessed in the celebrations for Team GB and Paralympics GB following their dynamic performance at Rio 2016, but it ought to at least be something worthy of marking the achievements of Major Peake.

     Between these two – Tim Peake and the British Rio teams – there is a lot to be proud of as a citizen of the United Kingdom and they are examples of what can be achieved when the country comes together to make beautiful and extraordinary things happen and then commemorate them. With the country as divided as it is along several fault lines, it is sometimes a wonder that such things are able to occur, but I believe that this speaks to the enduring strength and resilience of a country that has withstood so much throughout its long existence. When there is a common sense of purpose, differences can be broken down to allow for synergy among different people (for the UK is a union of people as well as a nations) to work together as one, which instills pride in themselves as individuals and as something greater than themselves.

     Going forward, the virtue of working together, achieving together, and celebrating together as a United Kingdom will be invaluable as the country enters into uncharted territory. Perhaps the tour by Major Peake throughout the UK can help serve as a reminder to the British people of who they are and what they can aspire to become, while striving to build a better country, and indeed a better world, along the way.

BBC Super Bowl and a British NFL Team (?)

NFL signs gracing Regent Street in London in 2013. Image Credit:  Tony Webster  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

NFL signs gracing Regent Street in London in 2013. Image Credit: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons cc

     When one thinks of something that is uniquely American, there a few others that spring to mind aside from the sport of, well…American football. Of course, our football was developed from rugby and football (a.k.a., soccer) as it is known throughout most of the world, but it is nonetheless something which we have made and perfected as our own.

     Perhaps even more so, we have developed and perfected the spectacle that is the very pinnacle of that game: the Super Bowl. It has now become an annual American institution that is firmly ingrained into our society and culture – so much so, that one may be mistaken to believe that the Supreme Court would rule it to be unconstitutional if the game was not played. When it is, well over 110 million of us are tuned in to our television sets – and perhaps many more on radio and the Internet – to listen to home-based broadcasters and commentators giving calling the plays and giving their take on the game in action.

     This year for Super Bowl 50, as the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos took to the field of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, I decided to do things a little differently and listened to the coverage delivered by the BBC while watching the television broadcast on CBS.

     As a person who takes a keen interest in the United Kingdom and all things British, I was somewhat anticipating to see what a British broadcast of such a thoroughly American sports event wound sound like. In fact, the three-man team for Beeb featured only one Brit – Darren Flecther, who was the main play-by-play commentator. For color commentary, he was joined by Canadian sports radio host Greg Brady and former NFL linebacker Rocky Boiman, who played for the Indianapolis Colts when they won Super Bowl XLI in 2007.

     So with a Brit, Canadian, and American fronting the coverage for BBC 5 Live, I turned my television volume down and the radio team took over from the on-screen all-American commentators. The experience of listening to the broadcast was quite engaging as the three men did a very good job of keeping me and the rest of the audience informed of what was going on.

     Darren Fletcher certainly seemed to be well-informed about the game, the rules, the teams, the players, and generally just about everything you would expect any American football broadcaster to know for purposes of covering the Super Bowl. It was a bit interesting to see this knowledge on display from a person hailing from a country which revels in the other sort of football, though to be fair, Fletcher did mention that he had covered previous Super Bowls, and so in that sense, it is not surprising that he is well-versed in our football – more so than I can admit of myself! For my part, it was fascinating to listen to a person with a British accent calling the game as it was played, and doing so in that was very British in an American setting. One thing I found particularly interesting was how he enunciated a hard “t” in the name of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in a way that could be described as right and proper, as opposed to many of us in the States who would pronounce Newton with a light or nonexistent “t”.

     He was very much into the game, as were his colleagues, Greg Brady and Rocky Boiman, who helped to provide statistics, expert analysis, and light humor and anecdotes. It was during this broadcast that I could discern a difference between the more sophisticated Canadian accent of Brady contrasted to the grittier American accent of Boiman. At times, it was like a game to figure out which man was speaking, but it became clearer – I believe – towards the end.

     During the broadcast, there was surprise voice which belonged to Martin O’Neill MBE, the manager of the Republic of Ireland national football team. O’Neill, who recently led the ROI to Euro 2016, had brought his whole squad to the big game as treat, and was invited to the broadcast booth to give his commentary on the proceedings in his very distinct Irish accent. He was not as knowledgeable as everyone else around him, but was otherwise engaging during his brief spell in the studio. O’Neill compared Cam Newton to his assistant manager Roy Keane and commented on how American football featured changes in momentum for one team or the other that is not seen in other sports.

San Francisco 49ers vs. the Denver Broncos in London, 2010. Image Credit:  Thomas  via  Flickr   cc

San Francisco 49ers vs. the Denver Broncos in London, 2010. Image Credit: Thomas via Flickr cc

     Indeed, the discussions that took place sometimes focused on the differences between football here and football everywhere else, and how perhaps lessons shared between both. For example, they discussed how American football uses the draft process which allows poorly performing teams to select the best players coming out of American colleges and universities, so as to balance out the playing field and give those lower performing squads a fair chance to improve themselves, and how this is in contrast to the European system of promotion and relegation, which promotes better performing teams to higher divisions within a league and relegates the poorer performing ones to lower divisions.

     There were also discussions about why superior offenses tend to win games for teams in the regular season, but defenses win during the play-offs and the Super Bowl in general. Indeed, for this game, the discussion was particularly apt because neither team well particularly well offensively. Cam Newton of the Panthers – in his fifth season in the NFL – found himself effectively neutralized by the fast defense of the Denver Broncos, while 39 year old Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning battled age and injuries to do just enough to get his team over the finish line, especially in the fourth quarter when they put the game away in the final minutes to make the score 24-10.

     Perhaps because of the defensive struggle between the two teams, it was a very dramatic game with – as Martin O’Neill observed – multiple momentum shifts where one team would find itself on a roll, only to be stymied by its own poor offensive play and/or solid defense from the other team.

     At any rate, it was an exciting game to watch and I felt that the BBC gave proper justice in its coverage of this event, which at least partly gave a British take on this great event and sport. As the great British poet Robert Burns said: “O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!”

     One thing that was unusual was the lack of commercials during time-outs, and if the Super Bowl is known or anything aside from football, it is the commercials – with some people saying they only watch the game for the advertisements. However, according to Sarah Swanson, the NFL's head of marketing in UK, “advertising has never been part of the Super Bowl experience in the rest of the world”, and the BBC, which has exclusive rights to air the big game in the UK, decided to fill the advertising time by having the commentators and experts explain to the home audience what they are watching on TV or listening to on radio.

     For me, this was a bit refreshing because I do like the commentary, and some ads are cringeworthy and overhyped. For the audiences in Britain however, the actual goal as reported by the Huffington Post was to convert “casual (if somewhat confused) U.K. spectators into loyal NFL fans.”

     On this point, it must be said that the NFL already has a large British fan base, and in recent years, more NFL games have been played in London as the league expands its International Series and demand for more games grows. In the upcoming 2016 season, three games will be played in London – two at Wembley and one at Twickenham – and at least one of those them is already sold out. With this in mind and the home-grown increase in NFL popularity, the inevitable question for the last couple of years has been whether the league will establish a permanent team in the UK’s capital city.

London NFL game featuring the Miami Dolphins vs. the Oakland Raiders. Image Credit:  Daniel  via  Flickr   cc

London NFL game featuring the Miami Dolphins vs. the Oakland Raiders. Image Credit: Daniel via Flickr cc

     This is something on which I have mixed feelings. It is one of those which would be intriguing to see happen, because the UK is like the US in many ways and having a football team would strengthen the already strong cultural relationship between us. Make no mistake, a British NFL team is something in which I would take a huge personal interest to see how it works out and I would probably be among its biggest fans because it would be such a unique enterprise in my favorite country in the world outside of my own.

     However, I do feel that it would be quite unusual for something so American to be permanently established in the UK. Yes, the football developed in Britain is in the United States, but it is a global sport in a way our football is not. Britain already has a firmly-rooted culture in what we call soccer, and it is difficult to see the NFL coming in to coexist with that. The potential fan base for a British NFL team in London would have to display a certain sort or amount of demand and enthusiasm in order to make such an investment worthwhile. Furthermore, there are the logistical issues of transporting the London-based team and the other teams across the Atlantic on a regular basis for home and away games, which will place much stress and strain on the teams and individual players.

     Nonetheless, Chancellor George Osborne is keen on bringing the NFL to Britain on a permanent basis, in part because of the foreign investment that it would bring, and has said that he will assist in whatever way to make it happen.

     For now though, it is probably best to keep the current system the way it is with the occasional games, and I would argue that the league should try out holding games in other big cities of the UK, such as Birmingham, Glasgow, and Manchester. The NFL is obviously popular in Britain and there is a base of fans who wish to see more, but the league needs to think long and hard before making such a grand leap across the Pond.