News Column

Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla., Russ Lemmon column

May 27, 2014

By Russ Lemmon, Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla.

May 27--NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman is taking a pair of war medals with him for his six-month stay aboard the International Space Station.

They are his great uncle's Purple Heart and Bronze Star from World War II.

Wiseman, 38, asked Ralph Sweitzer -- a 94-year-old Indian River County resident who fought in the Battle of the Bulge -- if he could take the medals to the space station, saying it would be an honor to do so.

In response, Sweitzer told him he was honored to be asked.

Wiseman will be making the flight aboard a Soyuz spacecraft with Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency and Maxim Suraev of the Russian Federal Space Agency.

The launch for Expedition 40/41 is scheduled for Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (It's set for 3:57 p.m. EST and can be seen on NASA TV and the space agency's website,

It will take the spacecraft just under six hours to reach the space station, according to NASA spokesman Dan Huot.

The crew is scheduled to return to Earth in November.

Sweitzer said he's always had a close relationship with Wiseman, who is his brother's grandson. (His brother, Harold, died at age 70.)

Sweitzer said Wiseman used to call him "Uncle Daddy." Among other things, he helped teach his great nephew how to play golf.

"I was very close to him, and that's why he's doing so much for me," Sweitzer said. "I can't believe the little boy is 38 years old!"

Believe it.

Wiseman first saw the war medals more than a decade ago when Sweitzer and his wife, Sue, were living in Zephyrhills. They were in a display case, and he was immediately captivated by them.

"He never forgot that," Sue said.

Wiseman, a former Naval aviator, was accepted into NASA's astronaut corps in 2009. After he was selected to go to the International Space Station, he contacted the Sweitzers and asked if could take the medals.

Sue promptly shipped them to Wiseman's home in Texas.

According to NASA, each person on Wednesday's flight is allowed to take a small box of personal belongings.

So, are the war medals on loan to Wiseman or does he get to keep them?

"They are on loan to him," Sue said. "When they come back from space, they go back in Ralph's medals case."

Ralph Sweitzer served in the Army 1943-45.

He was injured in the Battle of the Bulge -- a major German offensive in Belgium, France and Luxembourg -- that lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945.

One of three soldiers in a foxhole, he was the only one to survive an explosion. He was unconscious for several days in a hospital. He had lost hearing in his left ear.

Sweitzer said he came back to America a different man.

"It made me fear every loud noise," he said. "I would hit the ground ... I was neurotic. It took me a long time to realize (back home) I wasn't in a position to be killed."

As Sue said, "They didn't call it post-traumatic stress syndrome back then. They didn't know what it was."

When his stepfather died, Sweitzer took over the family business in Baltimore, Spies Plumbing and Heating, and ran it until he was 62.

Ralph's son, Bob Sweitzer, who lives in Indian River County, took him to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., shortly after it opened.

"All of the designs were exactly like it was when we were over there," Ralph said.

On Wednesday afternoon, he and Sue will be watching the launch of Expedition 40/41 on the NASA TV website.

The crew at the space station will participate in several hundred experiments in biology and biotechnology, physical science and Earth science during its monthslong mission.

Ralph Sweitzer's war medals will be right there with them.


DESTINATION: International Space Station

LAUNCH: 3:57 p.m. Wednesday

SITE: Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan


NASA TV: Available on cable systems and satellite providers, or on the Internet

International Space Station:

Follow Reid Wiseman on Twitter: @astro_reid

Russ Lemmon is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at 772-978-2205 or


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Source: Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, FL)

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