This is further to my previous general question 'Why are we here?', at the request of PearsonArtPhoto.

In searching for examples to put in this, I found myself exploring here in a way I haven't done for a while. It reminded me of how much I learned in my early weeks coming here, and why I enjoyed learning about the topic in the particular way SEx.SE provides. The format is conversational, which makes it easier to absorb and feels friendly, which encourages a person to stick with it. The information comes in bite-size chunks that are pleasing because despite their brevity they give a complete perspective of one particular thing, and usually contain links if you want to learn more, very often links that a person would have a lot of trouble finding on their own. I could go to a webpage about the ISS and read about it, and get a better overview. But you know what? It is a lot more entertaining and digestible to read the ISS-related questions here. And they contain some juicy tidbits I wouldn't have gotten without reading through reams of stuff - for example the mutiny question, and the weapons in space question. And once I read them all, I actually have a pretty good overview, and I am going to remember it better because it happened in a way more like a story or a conversation. There is nothing else out there like SEx.SE. I feel its potential to advocate for the field and change public dialogue about it is very high.

I probably fit the profile of most people who come here initially looking for one or two answers and then find they spend a lot more time here than expected. My previous knowledge about space was mostly from what I read in science media for the general population and hard science fiction. Such people are an important part of the site's population of regulars. What we ask, and to some extent also the kinds of answers we write, has a disproportionate effect on the amount of traffic the site receives. The regulars who will read this post probably all know it is the most accessible and usually broad questions that get the most attention. Those are also the questions most likely to result in the casually curious and most uninformed visitors sticking around after they have looked at what got them here, or asked what they wanted to know.

This is why I so strongly feel that SEx.SE could do more to engage these people. Here are two examples of where things go wrong, in my opinion.

Why are spaceship capsules frustum shaped?

When you look at the edit history of this question, you find that the asker knew so little about what he was asking that site regulars probably all thought it was about launching, not reentry. The question was getting precious little attention. I read it and realized he actually wanted to know about reentry. So I answered the question, because it was a topic requiring little enough expertise that I could, and I actively search for such questions. It is now among the site's most viewed questions. I have resisted the urge to edit the question's title to 'Why are spaceship capsules shaped the way they are' out of respect for my elders overworked people with much more experience. Perhaps the word 'frustum' piques curiosity.

It was easy to think the asker was not serious because the question was so brief and poorly phrased, but actually his English was weak, based on his behaviour I suspect he had no experience with forums, much less Stack Exchange, and he was so unfamiliar with the subject he didn't realize he didn't actually want to know what he'd originally asked. When asked if he could edit it a bit, he responded quickly. When he got his answer, he thanked me. I fear that sometimes such questions get neglected because they get mistaken for lack of effort or sincerity.

How would we move Venus or Mars into Earth's orbital zone? [closed]

I don't care how naive the question seems, it was a great one. It just serves the beginners and the curious, not the professionals or students in the field. If there was a deluge of such questions, perhaps it would become difficult for pros and students to use the site the way that serves them. Short of that, it is the kind of thing that can set someone on the path to learning more. See the success of the What If blog and now book. I understand that pros in many of the sciences often get frustrated by people who don't want to hear why their idea would never work. And of course if you have had your fill of battling the fundamental ignorance that so distorts public perception, walk away from such inquiries and be at peace.

But. This question is the kind of thing that lights up the imagination. For kids, it's great. I have thoroughly enjoyed the answers, and they have included a number of things that, if i was less familiar with the area, would have been an introduction that really made me want to know more. I dare say that Mark Adler and Aramis also used it as a fun little paradigm-stretching exercise in thinking outside the box. I would love to see a lot more questions like this. I don't think that would take anything away from the more practical and professional questions that come in, or prevent them from receiving good attention.

This makes me wonder how the 'close' operation is working here. The question has a number of well written answers that are very informative, it has received a ton of views, and a lot of votes for the answers.

  • $\begingroup$ I note that Aramis added something to his answer about this question a few hours ago. However, he chose not to vote to reopen. Some people aren't into voting. Nonetheless i think his actions speak for themselves. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Dec 21, 2014 at 16:30

2 Answers 2


As regards the question in your final paragraph, close votes happen when a question is outside the site topic as described in the Help Centre:

What topics can I ask about here?

Space Exploration is primarily about spacecraft, how to send them to space, and their functions there. Specifically, questions on these topics are encouraged:

  • Space exploration
  • Satellite design and operation
  • Systems with potential use in space
  • Scientific discoveries made by space probes

Questions on these topics (and many others) are not on topic here:

  • The study of exosolar objects, except as they relate to space travel.
  • Physical sciences, such as geology, astronomy, meteorology, except as they relate to spacecraft and space exploration.

So while the moving planets question is interesting, it doesn't fit on this site (which is about exploration) but it may have a home on Physics (as long as its core is around physics) or Worldbuilding (if the core question is around how this would be done in a novel, or an imagined universe etc)

  • $\begingroup$ The question was closed as too broad, which is the type of closure i think is being overused. Questions about terraforming and colonization have been allowed, they too could have been closed according to the list. Maybe 'space development' should be added to the scope. This is functionally a matter of whether a question feels right, though. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Dec 21, 2014 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ Well, too broad can be a problem with the SE model, which is really set up for a single correct answer. This does vary a lot by site though, so is worth discussing. Communities can and do change the criteria. $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop Mod
    Dec 21, 2014 at 19:50

Two things I think might help:

  1. The close function could maybe use a new option:

    • Do a search for [blank] to answer this question. This prevents getting drawn into a discussion of how the question could be phrased better or narrowed down when really the issue is it isn't worth spending time answering because that would take time away from more thoughtful questions. On the other hand, it helps out those people who genuinely don't realize that they could have gotten an answer quickly if only they'd known what to look for, or that they could look.
  2. A section somehow that is a collection of the questions that cover the basics, curated, accessible from the main page, and a place people having trouble might be shepherded to under certain circumstances. People I think sometimes get here, get interested, ask something, have trouble, and are too shy, too defensive, too confused, too busy, or too impatient to go through the learning process. If they can't deal with being shepherded to the 'How to ask' section or handling comments, then maybe if they can spend some time looking at stuff on their level and being entertained, they'll get a feel for the process and try again, or at least learn something and maybe come back.

An example - I have pondered asking something like 'What happens during a rocket launch'. Super broad, right? But I think I could answer with a list of the main events explained very briefly and each with good links. Then each point on the list could go to a related question (many of which also don't exist, I believe), such as 'What happens when a rocket is fueled', which could also be answered with a list of events and links. Doing a search for either question doesn't bring up much on Google. This is a gap for beginners looking to learn online.

I really think that the vast majority of broad questions can be answered briefly. If someone wanted to read a book on a subject, they wouldn't be here. That doesn't mean they don't want to have a general understanding of the subject, and the more people that have such an understanding, the better off space exploration is.

This question is perhaps a good test case: How accurate are modern ephemerides, and how does their accuracy degrade over time? I asked it with no idea how complex the matter is. I didn't want to abandon it, so I tried to muddle through a couple of papers on it in order to answer in a general way. I really don't know if the answer is very valid, it was just the best I could do. Maybe it's just me, but I think few people realize the solar system is fundamentally chaotic and would find that pretty interesting. I was tempted to write about measurements used to calculate an ephemeris, and all the categories of things taken into consideration, but the answer would have gotten rather long and anyhow that wasn't really the question. And I didn't want to ask another on that theme, because I had a feeling it would be closed or go unanswered, unless I answered it, and I wasn't sure that would be a good idea at my level of knowledge. This is a case where I don't know what a really good general answer would have looked like. I have a feeling there are great, informative ways to explain why 'it depends', but maybe it is very hard to do without getting into complex mathematics. Or something.


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