HOUSTON, Texas — As the countdown to Sunday's Super Bowl heats up, so do friendly rivalries. Two "out-of-this world" football fans look forward to the Panthers-Patriots clash with mixed emotions.
While Super Bowl XXXVIII is the talk of the town in Houston this week, people in Space City also know that Sunday marks one year since the Columbia shuttle disaster.
WRAL's Debra Morgan and Jay Jennings went to the Johnson Space Center to talk with astronauts about that day and about this weekend's big game.
Astronaut Frank Culbertson is from South Carolina. He's pulling for the Panthers.
"Oh, yeah," Culbertson said. "I hope the Panthers win the Super Bowl."
Astronaut T.J. Creamer is a New England fan.
"My heart is with the Patriots," Creamer said. "That's for sure."
Responded Culbertson: "Of course, he (Creamer) is. T.J. and I disagree on everything except space flight."
Despite the good-natured teasing about the game, Sunday will be bittersweet at NASA.
"The timing is unfortunate," Culbertson said. "I'm afraid that much of the attention this weekend will be focused on the game. That's really not the kind of memory we like to have."
Said Creamer: "With our one-year anniversary of the Columbia tragedy, our hearts are really divided with the Super Bowl in town."
Culbertson has seen tragedy before. He was the only American in space on Sept. 11, 2001 -- the day terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
"I saw this grey cloud envelop the city," Culbertson said. "I think what we were seeing was the second tower falling.
"I looked down at New York and saw a plume of black smoke from the south end of Manhattan that extended way out into the Atlantic."
On Sunday, a cloud will extend over the hearts of many astonauts as they remember their friends on the Columbia.
As part of the Super Bowl show, musician Josh Grobin will sing a song in tribute to the astronauts. Military planes also will fly over Reliant Stadium in the "Missing Man" formation.
"We all saw what happened," Creamer said of the shuttle explosion. "And all of us here remember them and remember what they were trying to do."