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Ok, hopefully I am not offending people here - please take it as sound criticism.

I have just read an answer, which I found rather hilarious and a good example for my problem (dear author, sorry, your answer is just my random choice).

I am probably one of the few scientists out there, who is accepting wikipedia (and 'the internet' as opposed to peer-reviewed papers) as a valid source. Wikipedia is cool, it gives a very good overview on most issues and I can link to it so people can read into details. It saves time when giving complex answers.

BUT

There is just no way to justify a statement because wikipedia does not know of anything (like in the example, it does not list any extended missions of Dawn). Or, well, a random space mission is not easily recognizable listed on the NASA website (ever heard of the term politics?). (Yes, I saw that the author said that current plans do not seem to exist. But in terms of 'browsing' this answer without full attention, the border between 'seem' and a definitive statement does virtually not exist.)

By the way, there is no way in just copying answers from other SE sites, putting them in quotation marks and say 'here you go, is has been answered before'. At the very very least ask yourself about whether this old answer is correct! The highest vote score is just no guarantee for that. You can link to such answers, that's fine, but this does not qualify as another answer. Honestly, you start to multiply possibly wrong information. (And hell yes, this will then score high on google, too, and I will receive stupid emails in my day-to-day life saying "google said that this is the case". It is like self-medicating with the help of 'the internet', doctors love it.)

Or in other terms, do not just give an answer because you had a quick google search and found nothing or a random source which you might not even understand but then use it for answering as if you were understanding it! This is just an incredibly bad habit.

EDIT >> One more way of looking at it: In terms of space exploration, we give answers, that most people can never ever verify on their own. This is so much different from e.g. SO, where people can test code (or concepts etc) they are provided. Here, people can not test our stuff. We need a much higher level of quality and a much lower tolerance for 'unsound answers' [definition required]. << EDIT

If you want to keep or raise the level of quality of answers (which you need by the way for attracting more professionals - questions can be stupid, that's fine), you should think about how to handle such answers.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 I've seen the bad answer Kessler Effect happen. Once bad answer propagating into a lot of bad answers. $\endgroup$ – user39 Jul 20 '13 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ No problem! (I'm the author :) $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ BTW, the seemyness has been, uh, slightly improved. $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ So, are you saying that my answer is incorrect? $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Undo: Disclose is the wrong term in your improvement :-) Hiding it deep in the jungle is a better fit. If you know how, you'll always find it - in public. Just not in the outreach-section of the google-indexed nasa website. (No, besides the style, the answer is correct as far as I can tell - see my answer). $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 20 '13 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles Could you point me at the correct information? $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Undo: See last edit to my last comment. There is not any in this case. But next time, please dig deeper :-) If you are not in the business, this can be hard, I must admit. Best chance is, if you talk to people. An official inquiry at nasa by email can do the trick. Or google for the PI (principle investigator) of the last mission to Titan and ask him/her - he/she will answer and he/she will know for sure! $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 20 '13 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles How would you suggest I dig deeper? Use Yahoo instead? Honest question, here. $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Undo: Sorry, I am editing my comments to much - see above ^ $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 20 '13 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ So are you saying that we can't trust anything on the Internet? $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ If it's on NASA's website, I would think that it is as close as you can get to official. $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Undo: It's not about trust. I find the space people at times a secretive bunch (yes, I am annoyed by that). Not all details are documented in the ultimate public - but you can always ask for them (or read tons of papers you wont have access for and visit tons of conferences). $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 20 '13 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles OK, that makes some sense. With that in mind, what would you say about my answer to this question? Official enough? Needed to contact someone? $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Undo Much better, it is basically ok. Mentioning sophisticated power-subsystems would be nice, and the difference between 'consumer-products' and space stuff, but that's a question of taste. $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 20 '13 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles OK, this is starting to make sense. Thanks for the advice! $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 20 '13 at 21:58
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On a possible code of conduct for this site - feel free to edit or turn this into a wiki.

STRATEGY FOR ANSWERING QUESTIONS

Never ever assume that a question is save to answer by your intuition! Check the facts, even if you think you know them!

There are general questions, stuff, which can easily be answered with wikipedia. Maybe OPs just do not know what to look for. They are lacking the right key words or the right approach of looking at the problem. It makes sense to give a short explanation on the topic and link to e.g. wikipedia for further reading. (I have seen plenty of misconceptions on astrobiology, for instance. Some folks did not even know of this discipline or term 'planetary protection' and why it exists. It accounts for some strange questions in terms of sterilization and some pretty strange answers to that, too.)

There are specialized in-depth questions, which can not be answered without experience. Either you know or you do not. Just googling around is pretty much a no-go here. (I was asking for sources of data from instruments on Soviet space probes, for example. It is save to assume that the OP (me) used google before. For fairness, I was excluding Russian results in my question.)

There are questions for which you need access to special literature in order to answer them (or your willingness to pay for it). Total open access is not there yet. It sucks, big time, but please leave such questions to people who have access. Point them to the publishers' websites, give them DOIs, link to the abstracts. In comments. Besides, if you have access, actually read the papers before you link or refer to them. Be careful with old papers. They can be fine, but you should understand their context. The space age started around 1960, a lot was written at that time. A lot has changed since then. E.g. computers and computer models became interesting probably during the 1980s for real, however there are some much older papers referring to computer models, too. This is the kind of context information, one should care about.

There are questions for which there is no easy answer, no matter whether you just want to google for it are whether you actually are professional, in one way or another. Do not write long answers and speculate about the issue! Maybe websites are vague. Literature does not seem to exist or just nobody has access to it. A lot of crappy stuff on the topic is on the internet clouding possibly good information. Those can be some constrains here. In this case, get in touch with professionals. And I do not mean to invite them in the invitation form on SE. I mean writing them an actual e-mail. (Maybe they later join this site on their own - but invitation mails are handled as spam in 99.9% of the cases.) A lot of scientists and space engineers are working in public service, live of your tax money (they know, do not remind them) and are supposed to serve the society for its advancement. It is their job to answer and they actually do. I propose a template for such questions:

Dear [Dr.] ABC XYZ,

I am writing to you because I have a question regarding ...

[My professional background is in discipline ... - if applicable]

I have read your paper ... / I have read the abstract of your paper [to which I do not have access] ... / I saw your statements on ... in an interview. / You are mentioned at ... as the point of contact for ...

What is ... Why is ... What is going on ... Whom could I ask instead in your opinion... Could you refer me to the right people? Could you refer me to some appropriate literature [that I (could) have access to]?

I am trying to answer a question [link] on this awesome web 2.0 space outreach site, that is really interesting and therefore bothering me. Thank you for your patience and any answer in advance.

Yours sincerely, ...

Whom should you ask? Google will help you here. Everybody has a personal yet official e-mail address.

  • In a space mission, look for the PI (principal investigator). PIs also exist for individual sub-systems and instruments. They are the chiefs in terms of science in space missions and the driving factor behind them. If you find their name but not their email address in the context of them being PI, see the next section on scientists. An average PI is at least co-author of a lot of papers. Attention: Professional enthusiasts!
  • Look for authors of papers on the topic of interest, scientists at large. In the papers, look for the corresponding author. That's the guy who either actually wrote the stuff or wants to be asked (or was demoted to handle the e-mails). On the websites of most publishers, names and email addresses are listed somewhere next to the abstract, although you might not have access to the paper itself. If there is nothing, search for university websites and the author’s names. Most academics have small personal websites. Sometimes, it is also good to search for their CVs.
  • Look for chief engineers (for construction, testing etc). They are different from PIs, they handle the practicalities of how to make something fly. They can be hard to find, hidden deep in companies or agencies - little of them in universities. Unlike PI, there is no wide-spread term like chief engineer in most cases. So you are looking for names, which appear a lot of times in leading positions in documents or websites on construction or testing procedures.
  • There are also project managers at space agencies. You find their names e.g. in administrative agency documents about design reviews or evaluations of missions etc. Google for them.
  • In really big projects, look for an official spokesperson. Some of them have such people, most of them are scientists with a phd, too.
  • Look for the PR division of your local space agency (but handle their answers with some care).
  • Look for an education department of your local space agency. All the big agencies have them and supervise students through them or provide contact to the right professionals.
  • Ask the manufacturers of space crafts (and again handle their replies with some care, since they do lobbying and PR for their own benefit). The technical term is (main-/sub-) contractor to a space agency (for one or multiple projects). Do not be surprised, in most cases it is well known big defence companies. They do have spokespersons and PR divisions.
  • Ask your local politicians (MPs, senators, whatever). They are good for funding issues and questions on why certain projects were approved, changed, delayed, stopped, denied or simply smashed up. Look for the guys in the right (sub-) committees of your respective government. Prefer elected representatives over people just working in public service. The elected guys are much more motivated to answer you than people working for e.g. some ministry - they want to be re-elected.

In any case avoid writing all of those mentioned people about your theories and views on the subject, if you are non-professional with respect to your question - this is the biggest turn-off you can imagine and it reduces the chances of you receiving an answer. Ask plain and straight questions. Give references to your question, if possible. Last but not least, do not exceed about 200 words for a first email (in academia) ...

PROBLEM / BACKGROUND

Space is special. It is in every way at the cutting edge of engineering and science. It is a rather small business and community, although there are strong links to other disciplines and an unfortunately overwhelming overlap with the defence industry. It costs a hell of a lot of cash and is therefore subject to politics. Politics can mess up everything.

We are trying to give answers, which people can not verify. In most cases, we do not give code or formulae or concepts. Nobody can immediately test our stuff on his/her computer - this is not stack-overflow in its full original sense. Maybe we can cite a source, but that's the limit. A lot of stuff is even controversial with the professionals, so we have to be careful and provide all sides of a story, if there are multiple points of view.

Space suffers from a series of misunderstandings (in my view). It is so expensive that people do not like to spend (tax) money on it. It is so incredibly awesome that (the same) people sometimes ask why there is no better equipment and more people out there. There is a lack of understanding for basic problems.

Sources are difficult. Because we are at the cutting edge, a lot of knowledge is 'hidden' in scientific journals, for which you need to pay a lot of money, or is discussed at professional conferences, which a lot of us just do not attend. At lot of basic knowledge is 'hidden' in the experiences and trades of rather small groups of people.

The space people naturally want exploration to move on. They need funding and the backing of people. And they sometimes just do not know how to do that. How many non-enthusiasts read all the agency newsletters? How many people actually watch NASA TV (which has become creepy at times, honestly)? They seek contact and questions of people, so they can answer them. They seek an improvement over the way space is discussed in the media ('fearless Felix Baumgartner travelled faster than the speed of light' by MSNBC - my all-time favourite). Web 2.0 and therefore SO can be a possible solution to that (among others).

Let's take advantage of all of those problems. Let's promote space [exploration] and involve some professionals.

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You've swerved into a problem that I've been really struggling with. Did we build a site for experts? Are we actually providing expert answers and (this is the really important part) are those answers being vetted by a community of experts? — that is the very definition of a Stack Exchange site.

Yes, Wikipedia is a great source for quick information, but Stack Exchange is designed to avoid all the old forum problems of taking anything written at face value and locking it in as canon, totally unvetted. No, Wikipedia is not a source authority; you guys are the experts.

But when we created a site for "spacecraft operators, scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts", I envisioned a much more applied site; the type where engineers and scientist would ask about the types of problems you encounter in your day to day work.

So back to the assertion you raised —

First, should we be asking a lot of questions that can be answered by a Wikipedia article at all? If we are, I'm concerned that we're either (a) not asking terribly intriguing questions; the type you encounter in your day to day work, or (b) the answers are not backed by resources and experience of those actually studying or working in this field.

If we're just copying and repeating information found on every other site on the subject, this isn't really making the Internet a better place. I'm not ceding that point; it's just a concern we have to address when we take a closer look this site when we evaluate the private beta.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a bit of a chicken & egg problem. You won't have a site for experts until you have experts on the site. I don't know if I'm an expert, but I am an experienced aerospace engineer. This site is years away from providing me any help in the types of problems I encounter in my day to day work (unlike, say the SO site). I think you have to assume that you will climb up that slope of expertise as a site over time. That probably means starting by answering questions that are at the undergraduate level (if you are lucky). $\endgroup$ – Erik Jul 21 '13 at 0:44
  • $\begingroup$ But hey, you are Stack Exchange -- you know more about building these sites than I do. Cheers! $\endgroup$ – Erik Jul 21 '13 at 0:45
  • $\begingroup$ I do not expect many expert questions soon. But, looking through the user list, we have actually quite a few people with the right background. It looks worse than it is. Wikipedia vs. space: The knowledge about space issues is incredibly low in the general public, to my experience. A lot of people will ask questions, that can easily be answered by wikipedia. However, they will never know what to look for. This is where we can kick in (right now). For more complex questions, we need kind of a code of conduct of how to handle them. I have an idea, I'll put it in an answer to this question. $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 21 '13 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ Besides, one more thing. This site in particular could use something like a "staging area" for answers. Like one field 'between' answers and question, where people can collect their research on the question, without giving it directly as an explicit answer. Wiki-style, open. This is where links to wikipedia belong. This is where numbers and bits and pieces could be posted. It makes a lot of sense for complex topics like space requiring lengthy research in e.g. literature even by professionals. Maybe something for your product management ... (?) $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 21 '13 at 2:52

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