PHILADELPHIA — It may be the ultimate thrill ride, and when the space shuttle Columbia blasts off next week, the pilot of the craft will be Jewish astronaut Scott Horowitz.
While the thought of sitting atop 500,000 gallons of rocket fuel and 7 million pounds of thrust may be daunting to most people, Horowitz is reveling in it.
It's going to be "a lot of fun," Horowitz, 38, said in a phone interview from Texas about two weeks before the flight. "I really don't have any nerves about it," he added. "It's a dream."
Piloting the space shuttle is part of Horowitz's goal to "keep trying to fly faster and higher."
A career test-pilot, he said he first flew a plane when he was 6 — his father's plane.
"I had always loved airplanes. I'm an airplane nut," said Horowitz, who built model planes as a kid, and who recently flew a real plane that he and his wife built.
As for becoming an astronaut, Horowitz quipped that "I started late in life — I was 12."
Actually, he noted, "I've been training about 25 years" for the job.
"In the sixth grade, my teacher wrote in my yearbook: `With your will and determination, you may become one of the astronauts of tomorrow.'"
That was in 1969. The teacher, Wendell Smith, will be at the Feb. 22 launch to watch his former student.
Horowitz said that because of an astronaut's complex role in today's space program, being an experienced pilot is not enough to make it onto NASA's roster.
"They're looking for someone who can fly many types of advanced aircraft. They're also looking for people with scientific background."
He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, and earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology."
Horowitz was born in Philadelphia and lived in Thousand Oaks, before moving to the Houston area.
For the most part, he said, his role as a pilot is limited to the first eight minutes of the flight, and then the last hour or so of the planned 14-day mission, when he lands the shuttle. For the rest of the time, the craft is in orbit.
During that time, the shuttle crew of seven is divided into two shifts. Horowitz will be working with the mission specialists to carry out various tasks and experiments.
One of those mission specialists is Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, who is also Jewish. This will be Hoffman's fifth shuttle mission.
Horowitz, who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a professor at Cal State Fresno, was accepted by NASA in 1992. He went through a year of formal training — covering, he said, "how the orbiter works, taking a good photo of the Earth, and some special flight training. You learn how to basically land a brick."
When the craft takes off 3:18 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, it will mark Horowitz's first time flying an actual space shuttle. All of his practice leading up to that point has been in a simulator.
Since his first year of training, Horowitz has served on the support staff for other shuttle missions. During that span, he says he has seen how much work and how many people are involved in each mission.
"It takes almost a million steps folks have to do to make this thing work."
And sometimes they don't work. The nation was reminded recently how wrong things can go as the 10th anniversary of the Challenger was observed.
That shuttle exploded less than two minutes into the flight when the O-rings failed after freezing in cold air at the Cape. All seven crew members were killed.
Horowitz said he can't dwell on that tragedy.
"It was unfortunate the accident happened," he said, adding that he has had friends who were killed in plane crashes.
"Risk little, win little," is a motto he follows, noting that he has confidence in the team that has prepared the Columbia.
Should something terrible happen anyway, he said, people have to realize that "it's worth the risk."
However, he doesn't think of the flight as risky. "My wife is more scared when I have to drive home from the airport," he said.
Meanwhile, liftoff day is important for the couple for another reason: Lisa Horowitz is scheduled to deliver their first child.
Although the Horowitzes have been trying to have a child for 12 years, even that will not keep him from his flight, he said.
In fact, Lisa Horowitz has flown from the couple's home in Texas and has been living in Florida near Cape Canaveral so she can watch the launch.
So what's next for this thrill-seeker?
"Hopefully, I'll be assigned to another mission," Horowitz said, figuring that he'll have another assignment as a pilot in about a year, and then maybe another mission as commander.
But the man who piloted a plane at the age of 6 is not satisfied with that.
Someday he wants to travel to the moon or Mars, two destinations that NASA is considering for the space program.
"I'd volunteer in a heartbeat," he said.