In Brief: NASA’s New Rocket; Central Command Changes; Guantanamo Update

Mike O'Brien

ORBITAL SCIENCES Corp. is ready to fly the medium-class Antares, its newest and biggest rocket, for the first time next month on a test mission for NASA.

The Antares, which was originally developed for the defense market, will blast off from Wallops Island, Virginia, between April 16 and April 18. Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to carry out at least eight cargo missions to the International Space Station.

If the test flight is successful, the company wants to attempt its first mission to the space station in the summer and start regular cargo deliveries before the end of the year, reports.

NASA turned to the private companies such as Orbital to undertake missions to the International Space Station after the agency retired its shuttle fleet in 2011.

DEFENSE SECRETARY Chuck Hagel presided over the change of command of U.S. Central Command from Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis to Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on Friday.

The transfer comes at a time of great change with plenty of risks and challenges, Mr. Hagel said, adding that Gen.. Mattis and Gen. Austin have a long history together, including leading the first U.S. troops to cross into Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey paid tribute to Gen. Mattis by saying: "The challenges the volatile Centcom region presents can sometimes seem almost insolvable, yet Jim looked beyond the risks and sought to understand and to consider what was possible. He looked beyond the threats that we’ve labored to confront to face down aggression in all its forms."

A HUNGER STRIKE involving about 30 prisoners at the controversial U.S. naval base in Guantanamo entered its 45thday today (Friday). The protest began on February 6 with six prisoners amid protests over the confiscation of letters, photographs and legal mail, and the rough handling of Korans during searches of their cells. More than a dozen inmates have joined the strike in the last week.

More than 50 lawyers representing the prisoners sent a letter last week to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to help end the strike.

President Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo after he took office in 2009, but Congress has blocked administration efforts to shut it down and made it increasingly difficult to resettle Guantanamo prisoners, Reuters reports.

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