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The internet is changing quickly, Stack Exchange is the foremost example of a new format on the web, and thus the traffic SEx.SE gets is shifting over time. As can be seen from a lot of the questions that get posed, ordinary people end up here, asking questions because they are curious about space in a way that dilutes its function as a resource for space professionals and serious students. Given that people will increasingly just verbally ask their internet devices a question and expect to be directed to an answer, the traffic of ordinary people, it seems to me, is only going to increase. Possibly a lot.

Stack Exchange communities have proven very resilient at handling such traffic, but it is generally seen as a problem and limited as much as possible. In the case of Space Exploration, the naive or confused questions that come in are mostly answered in good faith, and very well. Some don't make the cut and sometimes I think that is a mistake.

Being wholly funded by taxes, the entire fate of the field of space exploration hinges on public perception. The field has never had a tool for engaging the public like this site. I feel SEx.SE deserves a central place in the emerging network of resources for public education about space - places like the Space Transport and Engineering Methods wikibook, Wikipedia space-related articles (if they are substandard, shouldn't it be this community that sees that is corrected?), and other wiki-oriented things like Lunarpedia. I believe if SEx.SE doesn't draw the ordinary people who come here further in, so they learn more and their interest in space grows, it does the whole endeavor of space exploration a disservice.

So, it seems to me that perhaps some things should change so that mandate is better served.

First, if things are lumped together in the public mind, they should be lumped together here, too. Astronomy should be folded in. Planetary science questions should definitely be on topic. In fact, it might be better to call the community just 'Space', and drop the exploration part. After all, the field of astronomy is in the same boat space exploration is - if the public doesn't care, their projects don't happen. Pooling resources is the shrewd thing to do.

Second, A way of handling the extremely general questions of absolute beginners needs to be developed. I'd gladly tackle some of the questions that have been discarded because it would take a book to do them justice - by making a list of succinct points covering the basics, and loading the answer with links. Don't these people deserve to be pointed in the right direction? Some percentage of them will start reading through the linked resources and learning more. All of them will feel more connection to space exploration if they aren't given the cold shoulder. And especially - think of the children!!!

Third, a way to handle questions that have a certain degree of opinion to them needs to be found. Politics is the master of the fate of the field. Things that have no hope of being largely handled by factual analysis, sure, reject those questions. But some such questions really bear on where the field can go, and deserve attention. Maybe they could be clearly identified as being opinion issues, so that people keep that in mind.

The internet is shifting under our feet, Stack Exchange is young and has plenty of scope to adapt. Standards should be high. Scope should be broad.

Edit - I know I have broadly questioned aspects of the M.O. here, and I must admit to being deliberately provocative. These sites are run by experts, and experts sometimes forget what it is like to be a beginner, or undervalue casual interest. I felt if I was going to speak (I think) for those people, better to do it all at once.

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While I understand your concerns, doing such (grouping together some very vast fields of study) undermines the purpose of Stack Exchange all together. We are trying to build libraries of specialized and specific information, so something such as a broad question really doesn't fit. That being said, it always bugs me to turn people down who are asking genuine questions (no matter how poorly formed), but it's essential to keep up the quality of information exchanged on this site. We also believe that the people asking questions should have put some level of effort towards researching, and very general questions usually express a lack of any understanding. So, for those users, I suggest they read up on the subjects they are interested from other sources, and use Stack Exchange for when the have specific questions that they cannot find answers to elsewhere on the web.

Luckily there are many resources to get people started in the field of space exploration technology. People should not be coming to this site to get a foundation about space exploration, but to grow what foundation they have developed elsewhere. It must be very difficult to piece together all these questions into a easy-to-follow introduction to space exploration technology, but it is something I have given thought to (for example, link questions based on tags, allowing for some sort of grouping or flow among the information). It would be very difficult to learn a programming language just by shuffling through Stack Overflow questions.

However, we do need to encourage new users to learn more. Instead of scaring them off, we should probably be redirecting them to helpful references for learning outside of SEx.SE, and to encourage them to come back to this community for guidance when something doesn't make sense (which we do an OK job at already). Extending the community aspect even further, I think that you are right that we should fix Wikipedia of errors and possibly be active on r/space as well, although I bet there are some users on here that already do so (myself not included).

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the beauty of SE is that very general questions can be answered without breaking the flow of the specific questions that i agree form the heart of the endeavor. After you've covered the common general questions, you can direct people with the duplicate flag. space.stackexchange.com/q/6253/4660 is a great example. The OP didn't even know what he really wanted to know, and he could never have found an answer elsewhere. Maybe i'll add some examples to my question. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 17 '14 at 1:19
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A few additional points.

  1. is definitely on topic here.
  2. I don't think the public completely mixes the space/ astronomy, although there is a perception that they are in the same realm. I don't know of anyone who calls sending a space probe to Jupiter Astronomy, that seems fundamentally different than studying the stars.
  3. There are many projects that require public support, not just astronomy and space. Do we want to make the Large Hadron Collider on topic? I don't think so...
  4. The rest of your post makes much more sense. I don't disagree that we should be taking more action to help even poor questions become great ones. It can be tricky to figure out exactly how to do that, but I think it's doable. I suggest you post each of the points 2/3 as separate questions, how can we better manage beginner too broad questions, and how can we better manage questions that require opinions. Give several examples if you can as well.
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  • $\begingroup$ I'll try to put something together over the weekend. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 19 '14 at 15:40
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I'll see if I can address this in sections.

Merging with Astronomy

I've been against this for a long time - well, actually, since I first joined SE four or five months ago.$^1$ There's a simple reason - perhaps you could call it a test - for this.

Consider your knowledge of the two subjects. You have nearly 2000 rep here on Space Exploration, and you have a nice mix of questions and answers under your belt. True, you do have a decent amount of rep on Astronomy, but that was limited to one question and one answer, although they were both good posts.

Better, though look at the top users on Space Exploration and Astronomy. How many are really active on both? The obvious exception is Noordung, who's one of the top users on both sites, but there's a lot more activity on Space Exploration. Sure, there are others that are high-rep on both - Undo, Rory Alsop, S.F., called2voyage, Local Fluff, RhysW, and Manishearth, for example - but there aren't a lot.$^2$ Well, perhaps there are. But dig deeper and you find that there aren't a lot of people further down rep-wise (who are equally active) who are active on both sites.

My logic for not merging is that overall, there isn't a huge lap of users. On Space Exploration, perhaps 33%$^3$ of the top 50-or-so users are active on Astronomy; that number is lower for users on Astronomy being active on Space Exploration.

Questions for beginners

I'd say that the Be Nice policy trumps all else here. If users are cordial to you, respond cordially to them.$^4$ This is important for new users. I remember some of my first posts on many of the SE sites I'm highly active on today. Experienced users - and users in general - were kind to me as I learned the ropes, and it made a huge favorable impression. If we're not courteous to users - any users, really - they won't come back.

As for a specific way of answering basic questions. . . Well, we need to keep giving links in comments, but perhaps a sentence of two explaining what the link is would be good. Link-only comments are sometimes no more effective than link-only answers, which are, I think, the worst non-spam answers you can get. Give them Wikipedia as a starting point - or, often better yet, NASA - or the ESA, or any other site of large space agencies that cater to public interest. They're the pros, although I think we have some here as well.

But basic questions do deserve good answers from us. I know it might be hard for someone who's designed F-1 engines to hark back to their early days and teach a layman what the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation is (though it's ubiquitous, so perhaps not. A poor example), but try if you can. Non-experts like myself can be helpful, too, because we know lots of things about space exploration, too - believe it or not! As for "Think of the children!" - Please do! We're interested in this stuff, too, and you'll often find sophisticated questions coming from 13-year-olds. If their ideas need to be a bit more down-to-Earth$^5$, gently remind them of that. Let them be dreamers for a few precious years.

Opinion-based questions

I have no opinion on the matter at this time. Seriously, though, I have to go, so I will address this later.


$^1$ Then again, I also don't think that Astronomy is a subset of Physics, so what do I know?!

$^2$ One could also argue that the ones who are active on both are also active on a lot of other SE sites.

$^3$ Disclaimer: Horrible estimate.

$^4$ Not saying that you personally are rude to new users - you aren't - but I can't think of a better way to put it. There's a reason I'm not on English Language & Usage, and this is it.

$^5$ Very bad pun.

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    $\begingroup$ An extra +1 for giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling :). $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 18 '14 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ It isn't really the regulars i'm thinking about in terms of Astronomy. I'm thinking about how easy it is for a visitor with minimal knowledge and/or casual interest to find stuff on all of their space-related questions in one place, or be more tempted to browse because the selection is broader. My one question on Astronomy is a good example astronomy.stackexchange.com/q/8100/2810 A visitor just looking around is likely to click on questions like that, that's why they get so many votes. But that gets diluted over the two pages. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 18 '14 at 1:56
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    $\begingroup$ Which reduced my vote count for that question and may even have prevented me from getting the Great Question gold badge! :o $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 18 '14 at 2:01

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