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,
- 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.