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Problem

Movies like Interstellar or Star Trek would like to depict the ability to travel between stars, at speeds faster than light, as a technology which would revolutionize society and our everyday life, but if in the very near future, we discover some way of building spaceships capable of traveling faster than light, I was wondering if it would have any lasting and drastic effects on society, politics and everyday life within a decade or so.

Assumptions

Of course how FTL technology would change society would depend on a few assumptions; these are what I consider the most realistic assumptions (updated in response to some comments or answers):

  1. I assume that newly invented FTL would be expensive, short ranged and relatively slow:

    • The first interstellar spaceship would cost a lot, initially I said at least twice as much as the ISS to build and fuel, (though as pointed out it could be much more), since we don't know what the technology would look like, we can't tell the price, but it would undoubtedly be very high.
    • initially i said, that it would not be reusable, because i was thinking about an unmanned ship with exactly enough fuel to fly to a neighboring star, some answers did however point out that the technology may only be used within our solar system, in that case it would possibly be able to refuel and reuse a ship a few times, but that would both be expensive, and the ship would not last indefinitely.
    • it would at most be able to travel ten light years or so (due to limited energy storage capacity, this may change slightly if more resource is done, but don't expect to travel around the galaxy any time soon)
    • it would be able to travel at most three times lightspeed (and communication would be exactly lightspeed (of course you could send another FTL spaceship back and forth with messages, but I do think that would be way to expensive, therefore I think the very first FTL spaceship would simply use radiosignals))
  2. Space mining, and colonization in other solar systems would be just as expensive and difficult as in this solar system. (Some answers and comments have pointed out that this may reduce the travel costs, and with faster transportation the need to store resources on for instance a martian colony, and depending on wether the price of FTL is 2 times that of ISS or 10000 times that of ISS, it may be true that the price of space mining would drop somewhat, but both colonizing Mars or planets in other solar systems would still be expensive)

  3. There is probably not life on any planets within the 10 light year range from us.

  4. FTL technology would only allow us to travel in space faster than light, and would not for instance double as an infinite power source or a super-weapon, (or rather, an FTL ship could, as pointed out by Momarcil, also be used as a weapon, but what I meant was that for the first several decades, FTL would be so expensive, that ordinary nuclear weapons still would be a better investment). I also initially stated that the technology couldn't simultaneously make time travel happen, but as Fabbe pointed out, FTL may inevitably lead to time travel; but the method for time travel he outlined would require quite a lot control of the ship (so that it could first go the one way, then accelerate to 10% the speed of light, and go the other way), and for the first few decades after the invention, I don't think FTL spaceships could do that. Of course they may later be able to travel in time, but that wouldn't be one of the first effects it would have if invented tomorrow

  5. Finally, FTL technology would, of course, keep evolving, but this will happen rather slowly, and the problems of the technology mention in point 1. would take several decades (and a lot of money) to overcome

  6. Finallier (in response to comment: what is the effective minimum range for this FTL technology? from Mooing Duck), while I don't think there would be a technologically defined minimum range for FTL travel, I do think there is a distance below which the first FTL technology is to expensive to use compared to alternatives, that includes (probably) any shipping on earth, and (possibly) also surface to space and space to surface transportation (In the future this may change, but this question is concerned about what would when the very first FTL technology was discovered). It is quite possible that, as several comments and answers have claimed, FTL would be able to reduce travel time, and (depending on the technology) to some extend cost of interplanetary travel.

Question specification

I am of course well aware that FTL technology would be a great scientific breakthrough, but in the case this question, I only want to know if the life of the average human, and human politics in general, would change notably or at all, because that ultimately is what decides whether or not the governments of the world would even want to invest in building and researching FTL spaceships.

Specifically I am wondering if faster than light interstellar travel would have the same fate as Moon landings of the 1970s; which lost funding as soon as the public lost interest.

Or if interstellar travel, – just like the launch of the Sputnik started the age of satellite communication – would mark the beginning of a new age.

Requirements for answers

FTL travel tends to generate some opinion based questions and answers, and therefore this question has nothing to do with whether or not it is possible, or what forms it would take if possible, it is only about the effects on society and therefore I only want answers concerning how society would react, not why FTL travel is not possible.

Furthermore I want answers, which based on historical parallels, and/or the political situation of today's world, or logically argues whether or not FTL technology would cause notable change to society.

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closed as too broad by Azuaron, L.Dutch, James, kingledion, Youstay Igo Mar 17 '17 at 17:39

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Any FTL results in causality problems and time travel. How do you plan to cope with this? $\endgroup$ – Jim Garrison Mar 16 '17 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ I understand why you introduced those constraints, but they themselves are artificial. I think a practical proof of FTL travel would cause governments to enter a new kind of space race. We would have rapid improvements to the technology in relatively short order. $\endgroup$ – kojiro Mar 16 '17 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ Datapoint: The closest stars to Earth are Alpha Centauri (4.24-4.37 light years) and Barnard's Star (5.96 light years). So the only place we could go outside our own solar system, and still come back, would be Alpha Centauri. That system has 3 stars, and appears to have at least one exoplanet, conveniently in the habital zone. $\endgroup$ – Mooing Duck Mar 16 '17 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ Considering that, at present, we still have to expend enormous amounts of energy & resources just to get a handful of us up off this planet, I'd say that viable FTL travel will have little to no impact at all. If we already had regular 'scheduled passenger flights' to the moon or anywhere else in orbit then this would be a different story. $\endgroup$ – brhans Mar 16 '17 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ The travel industry would be radically affected. Depending on the costs of operating an FTL system, it may become more fiscally sound to shift to much smaller or larger vehicles, or do away with industries like air travel altogether if everyone has access to personal usage. Does it run on oil-based materials? If not, there would be serious economic and political upheaval in the diminishment of the oil market internationally. $\endgroup$ – Dan Mar 17 '17 at 0:35

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Not much.

The two examples you provided (Interstellar and Star Trek) have two different means of FTL travel.

The Interstellar model is much closer to modern technology, although certainly more advanced than what we have. The mission had finite resources, including energy, and had to make choices about which planets to visit. FTL travel was achieved via a wormhole, which is essentially a physical phenomenon that allows a spaceship to travel vast distances in space: no warp drive or other special propulsion mechanism required.

Star Trek follows a different model, using a warp drive. The amount of energy required to power such an engine is ridiculously high, necessitating the use of a power source that may as well be unlimited. A science-fiction warp drive uses a power source more advanced than we have literally to bend space-time into a warp bubble which allows the ship to travel FTL without violating relativity.

TL;DR the Interstellar mode of travel requires a lot of energy and the existence of a wormhole but we could certainly achieve it with an Apollo-level national effort. Star Trek or other warp drive technology requires vast amounts of energy impossible to achieve using modern technology.

FTL technology would only allow us to travel in space faster than light, and would not for instance double as an infinite power source or a super-weapon (and it would not allow time-travel, at least not the first several decades after its invention).

This is the crux of the issue. You are excluding the idea of a Star Trek type warp drive that would power FTL travel. No almost-infinite energy matter-antimatter annihilation power plant used to power a warp drive.


One of society's major limitations is energy. With near-infinite clean energy we could almost eliminate pollution, build efficient robots to do most of our work, and generally enjoy the benefits of a post-scarcity economy.

Without the type of FTL travel that brings easy energy along for the ride, we would not lift the energy burden from our world and would not make reality-changing progress.

If FTL travel was invented tomorrow, would it change society?

Yes, but given the previous constraint, not a whole lot.

There are people alive today who remember the 1960s space race and the Apollo program. Live video from the Moon was a huge deal. It united the U.S., even the world. The massive spending spurred technological advances (e.g. Velcro). However, it did not revolutionize day-to-day life.

FTL travel would certainly impact the world, but I would look at it the same way as my country's football team winning the World Cup. We all still have to go to work tomorrow and all we get are bragging rights. With FTL travel mankind would get to explore the galaxy, but most of us would simply get to watch some cool videos on SpaceTube and perhaps reap the benefits of some minor inventions that came out of the space program.

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    $\begingroup$ You say it didn't revolutionize day-to-day life. My velcro shoes say otherwise! $\endgroup$ – Brian Mar 16 '17 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Well, assuming we actually find a wormhole that meets the spec of course :). They may not exist in the first place... $\endgroup$ – Sobrique Mar 17 '17 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ The wormhole in Interstellar was not a natural phenomenon. $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 17 '17 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ @BoundaryImposition true, there are many Q&As on SciFi.SE and Movies.SE about Interstellar and some of them discuss the wormhole. The important thing, however, is that the humans who used the wormhole did not create it. Their technology level did not matter. $\endgroup$ – user1975 Mar 17 '17 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ That's correct. You could adjust the answer to that end. $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 17 '17 at 15:30
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Within the parameters you've set I think that FTL:

  • Wouldn't be comercially exploitable - too expensive to mine resources from distant moons.
  • Wouldn't be weaponizable.
  • Wouldn't allow us other world-changing technologies or discoverings (no alien life, no interesting phenomena like black holes or similar)

I would say that FTL technology would be much more a question of study here on Earth than something that was going to change life as we know it for the common people. But then, FTL travel is something that, like flying cars or laser guns, we have been dreaming of from like, forever, and its mere existence would start a new space race with an intensity it has not been seen since the fifties. Don't discount FTL at 10 or 20c to be developed really soon, because the amount of money invested in developing that would be eye-watering.

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    $\begingroup$ 20c is not very fast. It would still take 80 days to get to the nearest star, and the 10ly limit only just allows it to return from there... $\endgroup$ – Tim Mar 16 '17 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ About flying cars or laser guns: they do exist, they are just very inefficient, unsafe and bulky prototypes, and very few people invest into them. $\endgroup$ – vsz Mar 16 '17 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ 80 days sounds pretty close to what the earlier Atlantic crossings would have taken. $\endgroup$ – c.. Mar 16 '17 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim 20c is still twenty times faster than the fastest thing known to humankind so I'd say that qualifies as fast. $\endgroup$ – Erik Mar 17 '17 at 1:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim 80 days as opposed to 8 years? Big improvement. It's still super ultra fast even if it's not super ultra hyper mega fast. $\endgroup$ – immibis Mar 17 '17 at 2:59
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Of course societies around the world will change immediately. But the amount of change will at first be very small.
At the very beginning, we will of course be flooded with massive amounts of newspaper articles, tv shows and whatnot, any one of them misunderstanding the concept an the implications in various degrees.
There will be wild and colourful dreams about the possibilities this breakthrough brings, hope, and of course fear. Need i mention the very small but very loud groups of people either claiming that this was a prof of god, or of doom, or both, or neither?
After a while, some pop star will be dating someone new, and the headlines will forget about ftl and discuss other people's relationships, just as before.

But the interesting things will be small and subtle.
There will be funding for projects, eventuelly one project will be realized, and a first ship will be built. All this will cost money, as was pointed out, this money will create a few jobs, and will make some people happy and others unhappy.
But most of all, there will be a lot of minor byproducts of all the efforts that are being put into creating this first ship. It will mostly be those byproducts that will influence the lives of the people, hardly noticed and in many small steps, but it will be there. Think about microwave ovens. They were a byproduct of the space race. They are by no means spectacular, they don't feed the poor or cure cancer, but they do have an impact. The same goes for sattelite navigation and countless other things that were invented while originally pursuing higher goals.

Obviously, it is impossible to know what kind of interesting inventions your new techology will bring forth, but they will emerge, and will gradually change the lives of everybody.

And while probably a bit boring, i think that this is actually what will happen. Not global peace, not post-scarcity, but a lot more knowledge in some specific fields for those who care, and a lot of improvements to many small things, and a few novel kitchen implements.

Granted, this doesn't give you much of a story, but it's still something that changes societies, just not in huge steps.

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  • $\begingroup$ While I agree with most of this answer, microwaves were a by product of RADAR research - not the space race. $\endgroup$ – Tracy Cramer Mar 17 '17 at 17:46
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FTL travels will have some important effects on technology, that then will affect society.

FTL travels would, INDEPENDENTLY of what technique that is used, ALWAYS make it possible to travel in time, and THAT would have a great impact on society.

The reason is because there is no objective simultaneity. Just by raising up from a chair and walk through a room, you change what moment is "now" in distant galaxies with hundreds of years! The only thing that stop causality to break the normal order is the fact that we (at least yet) cannot travel faster than light.

So, let's say you travel 10 ly in one direction, from A (Earth) to B in 3 month.

That mean that you transport yourself from a point in spacetime to another, that is in your point of view 3 month later. (That point of view is dependent of your velocity!).

You start from A at 2100 January 1:st, and arrive at point B at 2100 April 1:st.

At point B, you accelerate your ship (in the same direction you traveled), from 0 m/s to 29 979 245 m/s (10 % of the speed of light). The point that is "now" on Earth has now changed to be 2099 April 1:st!

Now you travel back the same way (if you cant reuse the ship, just have another ship built on place before, waiting for you), and will arrive on Earth on the 2099 July 1:st, 6 month before you went away.

If the FTL travel is used by another way and by a ship, i.e. a wormhole that you can create, you just create a wormhole on B that have the velocity away from A. If you teleport, you just do the same, but accelerate before accelerating back.

If you believe in The Novikov self-consistency principle, based on Einsteins equations, a time traveler will not be able to create paradoxes. Therefore you can make situations there you demand to get the right answer from your future self, ("What is the solution to X"), and if the answer was wrong, you will send another answer in the future. To avoid paradoxes the natures easiest way is that you receive the right answer so you will send back the same right answer.

"How do I create a fusion reactor"? "What shall I do to be happy?" "How will I save the environment", and so on.

Beside all this time travel stuff, you will be able to create "back-in-time" spy satellites: Just travel 1 light hours away, and engage your super-ultra-telescope for looking at the light that was sent 1 hour ago, to see what happened (who killed the President, where did the car/airplane go, and so on). That can make the world a bit safer and better (or worser, with a bad government).

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    $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. FTL, relativity and causality are mutually exclusive. In a universe with FTL and causality (which I presume he wants to preserve) relativity is no longer valid. In that case you can have FTL but not time travel. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Mar 16 '17 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ I think you could make it work without time travel as long as you have a privileged frame of reference as long as you don't mind removing relativity from relativity (with all consequences of Noether's theorem). $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Mar 16 '17 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ Note that while FTL without time travel requires a privileged reference frame, it doesn't necessarily violate the principles of relatively if that reference frame is determined by something physical. The absolute speed of sound, for example, doesn't violate relativity, because it is relative to the atmosphere. If there's some sort of as-yet-undiscovered "warp field" that defines what counts as "backwards in time" when traveling faster than light, you can have relativity, FTL, and causality, at least in principle. (Might be a bit tricky making the maths work out properly.) $\endgroup$ – Harry Johnston Mar 17 '17 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ While it isn't impossible you could get the right answer to a question from a time loop, the more likely result is that you will receive an answer you can't determine the correctness of, or get the wrong answer due to an accident of some kind, e.g. a random bit flip somewhere in RAM on the computer you're using, or a sudden brain stroke, or such. $\endgroup$ – AJMansfield Mar 17 '17 at 5:38
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    $\begingroup$ @AJMansfield You're assuming the universe has some kind of "Time Corps"? Then it's simple - we just need to ask Jean-Claude van Damme! $\endgroup$ – Graham Mar 17 '17 at 12:10
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How can it not be weaponized by speeding up a large metal slug to post lightspeed speed?

Beyond that I figure it would allow research outposts within our solar system like Titan. Mining will unlikely be economical and we still got the massive issue of getting things from Earth to space and back.

It would effectively negate all distance within the solar system but beyond that all barriers against space travel seems to remain.

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    $\begingroup$ "Beyond that I figure it would allow research outposts within our solar system like Titan." Not if it takes significant time and distance to get up to full speed. $\endgroup$ – ceejayoz Mar 16 '17 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ Well he never specifies that so I assume it works through folding space time and the start is instantanious, not a build up.But yeha obviously if it's a build up it would be useless for shorter distances though maybe great for probes. $\endgroup$ – Mormacil Mar 16 '17 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ Most semi realistic theories of ftl don't make the object go "really really fast then even faster" they employ some sort of spacial distortion, as such they don't have the momentum associated with going faster than light. Which is lucky because that would be infinite $\endgroup$ – Richard Tingle Mar 16 '17 at 15:22
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The first faster-than-light travel would not be by a ship, it would be by a few dozen particles in an accelerator somewhere. Initially, this would be dismissed as measurement error, bad methodology, or an outright hoax, assuming it even made it outside of the research team that saw it. It would be probably only decades later that the first paper discussing it would get published, and likely at least half a century before any practical applications are developed.

Once we get there though, the first real-world application of FTL travel would not be material transport, but communication. Just point your FTL accelerator at the particle detector on the other side of a 5 nanometer gap in a cryogenically cooled vacuum chamber and you can transmit a message faster than light. Oh wait. Perhaps this will let us do some neat computing tricks? (like entanglement effects on quantum processors?) Someone will publish a paper on how to crack QES cryptographic keys with it, and nobody will care because we're still not remotely close to being able to use it in practice.

And that will be it. Eventually the age of quantum computing will end and be replaced with FTL computing, and some other fundamental limitation on the way FTL travel works will be discovered that precludes using it for transporting anything but single subatomic particles. The media hype train might run for a while, but other than that, Joe Public will be completely unaffected.

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  • $\begingroup$ That'll revolutionise stock market and international currency trading, and probably not much else. The resulting market crashes might be devastating... $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Mar 17 '17 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, this assumes it's easier to FTL small things rather than large things. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Mar 17 '17 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 That's an interesting premise (although clearly not the one I took). If the energy it takes to go FTL actually went down as density increased, at first only truly colossal ships on the scale of planets or stars would be able to go FTL. And later, 'warp drives' would essentially just be a black hole in a box. $\endgroup$ – AJMansfield Mar 21 '17 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummond I am assuming per OP that the technology would have limitations that prevent macroscopic time travel, e.g. you can use it to violate causality by perhaps even femptoseconds at a time, but you can't relay information back indefinitely due to some fundamental limitation on FTL travel. (After all, you can't clone states in QM either). $\endgroup$ – AJMansfield Mar 21 '17 at 21:32
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Society will change, generally with a gradual increase in speed through amazement, horror, then general disinterest

1st: Society would react with awe and amazement the same way we viewed nuclear power though the 30's and 50's. Headlines and movies explaining the good that can come out of FTL Drives, Sci-fi movies dominated with finding alien life and colonizing planets will be somewhat of the norm.

2nd: We would figure out how to use it in military applications, if not directly, then for payloads and military ships (cost doesn't really matter when superiority is at stake). Ships could be outfitted with multiple drives with each one used in case of emergency (think Borg Transwarp coil in Voyager), and even though slow and expensive to set up, processing facilities could be set up for rare gasses and minerals (Astatine, Xenon and Krypton, and Rhodium, Francium and Astatine, respectively)

3rd: As it becomes more commonplace and more laws are passed to prevent mutual assured destruction we would then use it for more explorative applications such as throwing FTL satellites past our solar system to collect data on potentially habitable planets far into the future. Concerning the General population, they'll just say "whatever" and go back to watching YouTube.

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FTL? Sure. Ppl will stop speculating as to whether anybody will ever discover a method of FTL travel. Millions of novels will seem old-fashioned overnight. People will spend very long periods of time doing absolutely nothing travelling to far away places for no good reason....on the back of taxes raised from people who would if they could but can't afford to go to college (or send/backstop their children) in order to be eligible for ever becoming an astronaut.

FTL would change society massively. Once space becomes viable the only thing that (loosely) ties the rich & powerful & people with Big Red Buttons to moral actions (the fact they have to live on the same planet as the rest of us) will be null & void.

More middle of the road reasons?

Every change in logistical capacity ever impacts economies and thus societies massively. Societies are essentially groups of people that share a common economy. FTL will impact every one the 3 big indices..

Logistics determine economic viability in every 'real' industry. FTL rewrites the rules.

Presumably FTL (and corollary discoveries) would include manipulation of new energy sources or old ones in new ways. Fuel..is..important..to..society..

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Such a development would be a massive change

The requirements you place (no time travel, no commercial viability, no associated interim developments, cost only thrice the ISS) are not compatible with the development of FTL travel along the lines that modern physics is looking. In fact, FTL achieved while satisfying those conditions would necessitate an even bigger disruption of modern physics than just the development of FTL travel by more 'normal' (i.e. less theoretically disruptive) means. In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein and Max Plank (among others) published papers that showed widespread fundamental failings in the Newtonian system at that time underpinning the scientific community's understanding of cosmology. Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his work on explaining the Photovoltaic Effect, and a new age of science was born. Quantum Mechanics, General Relativity, these disciplines were born almost overnight and there was a veritable explosion of research, publishing, and general enthusiasm both in the scientific community and the global community at large for physics and the physicists creating it.

As our understanding of the world fundamentally changed, we found ourselves swarmed with new technologies, wonders that would have been impossible in the old Newtonian world. LASERs, transistors, GPS (and anything else going really fast and really far away and trying to tell where things are), scanning electron microscopes, the list goes on. Some of these were sort-of overnight things. Some of these took a while longer. And, of course, each of these things building off each other makes even more things.

So what would happen overnight?

You'd see a couple people, the people who invented this, raised to the level of global heroes. They would have a lot of power, a lot of influence and funding and fame. Someone gets the Nobel Prize in Physics for this. This gives them a platform, and Einstein used this to accomplish a lot of good in the world. There's not much reason to think an inventor in today's time would be philanthropic. You'd see some effects immediately, here, though the full ramifications could take a while to come into effect. These effects last a VERY long time: we still quote Einstein and the effects of his support for e.g. nuclear disarmament and not locking liberal scientists up for being 'Commies' continue to shape the world in which we live.

You'd see immediate financial policy changes. The fastest will be individual investors grabbing tech stocks in related industries, followed by investment groups, but within a year you'll have countries making serious changes to their research grant programs and of scientific focus in general.

Medium-term?

You'll have a revival of the physical sciences. Physicists will make lots of money and lots of people will go to school to become physicists and some sort of related engineer (probably mechanical) and, as a result, biomedical interest will slow somewhat. Education spending will go up, and the way it's spent will change. Textbooks for middle school on up will have to be rewritten. Some young college students will be inspired by the new field and towards the tail end of the decade begin a second wave of research and development expanding upon the first and truly revolutionizing everyday things by relentlessly applying the new paradigm.

Space fiction will become popular again, like zombie stuff is now. We already did space-everything pretty recently, so this might go differently, but expect popular portrayals of FTL travel to change to match the new scientific results at the very least.

Since FTL ships can't be used as weapons (for magic reasons beyond our current ken), expect warfare to change. Right now, we are very much in an attacker-wins sort of situation. If FTL ships or the technology involved in them can somehow be used for defensive purposes, the world will become briefly a much more dangerous place and then a much safer one. Our most pressing reasons for space colonization would ironically be defused by the very technology likely to make it easy.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Space fiction will become popular again" Space fiction is popular again. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Mar 17 '17 at 17:22
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I'd say that it would be business as usual. NASA would send probes and have another way to fund their works program for engineers.

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