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Artist's illustration of an SLS rocket launch. Image: NASA

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) mega rocket and the Orion spacecraft — designed to take people to deep space destinations like the Moon and Mars — are facing possible delays and cost overruns, according to a new independent report released Wednesday.

Why it matters: Orion and SLS are key elements of NASA's planned Artemis mission, which is the Trump administration's plan to bring astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. If development of the rocket and spacecraft experience further delays, the agency may not meet that deadline, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

Details: "NASA is unlikely to meet its recently revised launch date for the first test flight," the report says. "In addition, its reporting of cost growth for SLS and Orion is distorted."

  • NASA has been working toward launching the Orion and SLS together for the first time in June 2020.
  • The report, however, suggests that date is unlikely to be met and could slip to as late as June 2021 if issues are found during testing.
  • The GAO also found that the SLS's cost has grown by about $1.8 billion.
  • Assuming it's completed and launches successfully, the SLS would be the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built.

Between the lines: NASA has looked into using a privately built rocket — like SpaceX's Falcon Heavy or ULA's Delta IV Heavy — for deep space exploration, but the agency decided to move ahead with the long-delayed SLS program instead.

The intrigue: The report also suggests that NASA re-evalulate how the agency incentivizes its contractors due to cost overruns and delayed schedules.

  • "NASA paid over $200 million in award fees from 2014-2018 related to contractor performance on the SLS stages and Orion spacecraft contracts," the report reads. "But the programs continue to fall behind schedule and overrun costs."

Background: Orion and the SLS have both experienced major delays and technical issues through the course of their development. The SLS, for example, was expected to fly for the first time in 2017.

  • The Artemis program itself is expected to cost at least $20 billion to $30 billion, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
  • NASA asked Congress for $1.6 billion to fund the moon shot this year in an amended budget request, but Congress has been reluctant to grant NASA such funds without knowing what the total program will cost.

Go deeper

Trading platforms curb trading on high-flying Reddit stocks

Major trading platforms including Robinhood, TDAmeritrade and Interactive Brokers are restricting — or cutting off entirely — trading on high-flying stocks like GameStop and AMC Entertainment.

Why it matters: It limits access to the traders that have contributed to the wild Reddit-driven activity of the past few days — a phenomenon that has gripped Wall Street and the country.

2020 was the economy's worst year since 1946

Source: FRED; Billions of chained 2012 dollars; Chart: Axios Visuals

One of the last major economic report cards of the Trump era lends perspective to the historic damage caused by the pandemic, which continued to weigh on growth in the final quarter of 2020.

By the numbers: The U.S. economy grew at a 4% annualized pace in the fourth quarter, a sharp slowdown in growth compared to the prior quarter. For the full year, the economy shrank by 3.5% — the first annual contraction since the financial crisis and the worst decline since 1946.

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
3 hours ago - Economy & Business

How GameStop exposed the market

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Retail traders have found a cheat code for the stock market, and barring some major action from regulatory authorities or a massive turn in their favored companies, they're going to keep using it to score "tendies" and turn Wall Street on its head.

What's happening: The share prices of companies like GameStop are rocketing higher, based largely on the social media organizing of a 3-million strong group of Redditors who are eagerly piling into companies that big hedge funds are short selling, or betting will fall in price.