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Mixed Emotions

Orlando Sentinel

Jon Clark can’t bring himself to celebrate. The timing is bad.

Most of the others, those few who lost spouses and parents and friends aboard the space shuttle Columbia, will go to Super Bowl XXXVIII today. They’ll join the city of Houston in the world’s largest annual sports party.

“I just don’t feel comfortable whooping it up, drinking beer and having fun,” says Clark. “As much fun as that might sound, I don’t feel it’s the right thing for me to do. Not right now.”

The city of Houston will play host to today’s Super Bowl but for many, the party will be cast in somber hues.

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Today is the one-year anniversary of the fatal space shuttle explosion. On Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated and rained on east Texas.

Houston is the home of NASA and the tragedy struck a particularly sensitive chord here. So while much of the sports world celebrates today, this city will experience confusing emotions:

To be sad? To be happy?

To remember? To move on?

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“It’s odd that we see the juxtaposition of a very sad event and a very happy event. But that’s part of life,” says Muriel Meicler, a Houston psychologist. “In our sadness, we continue to see reasons to celebrate and life goes on with celebrations. That’s why people continue, why they want to live.”

When Houston was awarded the Super Bowl three years ago, no one imagined such a tragedy would occur on this date. The city was without professional football for seven seasons, before the expansion Houston Texans began playing in 2002.

NFL officials were in Hawaii, preparing for the Pro Bowl, last year when the shuttle exploded. They realized instantly that Super Bowl XXXVIII would fall on the one-year anniversary and began planning appropriately.

Before the football telecast, CBS will show a feature in which members of the rock band Aerosmith visit the NASA facilities. Then, before the national anthem, pop star Josh Groban will sing a tribute song entitled “You Raise Me Up” and NASA crew members will be recognized on the field.

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“The Super Bowl and the NFL are very aware of current events, especially when it hits that close to home, in a city like Houston,” says league spokesman Brian McCarthy. “We want to honor and salute those who lost their lives, but we also want to move forward and think about the future.”

He likened the festivities to those at Super Bowl XXXVI, which featured U2 in a 9/11 tribute halftime show, and to Super Bowl XXV, where Whitney Houston sang an inspired version of the national anthem as the country was in the midst of the Gulf War.

“With an event like this, we’re looked at not only to capture the spirits of a country, but to inspire everyone,” McCarthy says.

There already have been other commemorative events. On Friday, NASA workers gathered at 8:16 a.m. -- the time Columbia was scheduled to land -- for a moment of silence and ring a bell in memory of the lost crew.

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Nearly half a dozen other ceremonies were planned across East Texas, where Columbia rained from the sky, and the biggest memorial will be conducted Monday in Washington.

Today, though, many say that Houstonians will be able to separate the game from the year-old tragedy.

“I don’t see any correlation between the game and what happened a year ago,” says Chris Baker, who hosts a drive-time talk radio show on KPRC in Houston. “The city’s very excited about this game. It’s a big deal.

“You have to remember that Houston and NASA and the people here believe that with great progress comes great sacrifice. As you move forward, you’re going to get some setbacks and some tragedies. People here are very resilient. They know that you can have an enormous tragedy, but you got to move on.”

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Not everyone can though.

“I wish we could move forward,” says Clark, whose wife, Laurel, was a mission specialist on the flight.

Although others who lost loved ones aboard Columbia will attend the Super Bowl, courtesy of the game’s host committee, Clark, a Houston resident, says he will visit the field in East Texas where his wife’s remains were discovered.

“Moving forward and changing is a necessity,” he says. “But I just don’t see it.”

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Experts say the game shouldn’t lose any luster because it coincides with a tragic anniversary. After all, since the shuttle exploded, Americans have waded through political elections, a war and a capricious economy.

“Americans have short memories,” says Russell Curtis, a sociologist at the University of Houston. “Unless they are reminded, most persons in this country will not even know the date of the explosion.”

Houston boasts the nation’s fourth-largest population and an impressive performing-arts community but is mostly without a huge tourist draw: no major landmark, identifiable event, or architectural monument.

“The Super Bowl is unique as an event for this city,” says Curtis. “Not since the 1970s has Houston been the setting of a national title event and that was the Super Bowl and a time when its symbolic and economic importance were minimal, compared to the status of this event today.”

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Built around energy, the space program and ranching, Houston is typically forward-thinking, laying claim to more start-up businesses each year than any city in the country.

That’s why to think backward might be unusual for Houstonians. But the Columbia explosion put the entire space program in dire straits and left an entire nation mourning.

Many locals hope the celebration will help the healing, that the one-year anniversary will be no more than an ironic footnote.

“The city was shaken a year ago,” says Meicler, the psychologist. “NASA is a way we identify ourselves as a city. It’s ironic that we now have this on the same day, but I think it’s characteristic of how life is: It’s sadness and sad memories, but it’s also joy and creating those new memories, as well.”

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