HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- A fun weekend of science and space adventures was just the ticket for a Fort Campbell, Ky., Soldier and his family who were the guests at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center thanks to the generosity of the North Alabama chapter of the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles Association.

Staff Sgt. Justin Hicks of the 101st Airborne Division, and his wife VaRhonda spent the weekend of July 29-31 with their children -- six-year-old Grayson and 11-year-old KyLeigh -- at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Family Space Camp. Their trip was made possible by a donation from the North Alabama Screaming Eagles Chapter.

"We really appreciate the opportunity to do this and to spend time here together as a family. We're super excited about getting to experience something new," Hicks said during a brief meeting with NASEC vice president Joe Crocitto, executive secretary Phil Thompson, and membership and public affairs chairman Larry Spring, who works for the Aviation and Missile Command.

The NASEC members welcomed the Hicks family prior to the start of Family Space Camp. At the time, the kids were so excited, it was hard to get them to stand still long enough to get their picture taken.

"I think I will learn a lot of stuff I can use later on," KyLeigh said. "I can't wait for the G-force chair and the zero gravity chair. It want to do them again and again."

"Today, I'm going to space for my birthday!" said Grayson, who turned six on July 29.

"This is the second year that we've sponsored a Soldier family at Space Camp," said NASEC vice president Crocitto. "We let the 101st Airborne Division find a family for us so we can sponsor them. Everything we do goes back to the Soldier. Our charter is to support Soldiers past, present and future. Doing this for the Hicks family is fulfilling our charter."

Because of that charter, Hicks' son Grayson got to celebrate his birthday at Family Space Camp. The family slept in bunk beds in the Space Camp habitat, enjoyed astronaut training simulators such as the one-sixth gravity chair and the manned maneuvering unit, and participated in a space mission.

"They loved all the rides," Hicks said following camp. "Anything that goes fast my kids love. The G-Force simulator and the gravity chair were favorites. My wife and daughter went on the Space Shot more than once."

Hicks, an Army infantryman who works as a platoon sergeant for the Battalion Operations Center, 1st of the 502nd Battalion at Fort Campbell, wrote an essay about his family and Space Camp to qualify for the trip with the 101st Airborne Division.

"I had to provide information about my 14 years in the Army and where we've been stationed," Hicks said. "I told them about the activities we do as a family and how I coach multiple sports with both of my children. KyLeigh plays softball, and Grayson plays baseball and football."

The weekend was packed with space history; building and launching rockets; rides like the roller coaster simulator, G-force simulator and the Space Shot; and space missions where they took on the roles of commander, pilot and mission control and space experiments on the International Space Station.

"We had a great time. The kids absolutely enjoyed everything. They especially loved the astronaut trainer and the moon walk," said Hicks' wife, VaRhonda. "Our guide was great and she took us through all the activities. We made lots of new friends. There was never a minute where we were just sitting. The kids had the time of their lives, and Justin and I had fun, too."

Hicks appreciated the helpful and welcoming staff, the shuttle mission and the rides, and the fact that "we weren't just tagging along with the kids. There were fun things to do for all of us."

It wasn't the family's first visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. They visited when KyLeigh was in the first grade and Grayson was only two. But, it was their first experience with Space Camp, and they plan to attend the camp again. Their return visit won't be just for the fun of simulators and the speed of rides. Hicks and his wife also see it as a chance to further show their children the opportunities there are for them if they pursue science as a career.

"Our daughter has always been interested in science and I think this trip strengthened that interest. Our son is interested in being an astronaut, so it was great opportunity for him. He hasn't stopped talking about it since we left," Hicks said. "He also wants to build and shoot more rockets like we did at Space Camp. This was an amazing opportunity and I can't thank the Screaming Eagles enough."
That gratitude goes both ways.

"It was an honor for the North Alabama Screaming Eagles Chapter to be able to extend this great adventure to the Hicks family," said NASEC officer Spring. "We are grateful for the Hicks family's service to this great nation and wanted to be able to offer this to them in appreciation. The board of directors and the members of NASEC are glad that the Hicks family enjoyed the experience and are glad that it was beyond their expectations."