VLT - Very Large Telescope, it is perhaps not the most inventive name for an astronomical instrument. But, as the 1994 advertising campaign from Ronseal, makers of wood-stain and wood-dye products said: "It does exactly what it says on the tin". The European Southern Observatory's VLT is a group of four 8.2-metre diameter optical telescopes in northern Chile. It also has four movable 1.8-metre diameter auxiliary telescopes and they all work together to act as what ESO calls a "giant interferometer"…so not a VLT at all, a GI. Resolution is some 25 times higher with the system acting as a GI than is achievable with the individual telescopes.

The VLT is big science and as with all big science, think LHC, NASA, etc, there's a big price tag, a very large, a giant, price tag in fact. And not in the words of pop star Jessie J, it most definitely is about the money. But, is it money well spent? NASA mythology always points to Teflon and other such legendary spinoffs of the space program as somehow justifying the billions, if not trillions spent. But, there has to be a greater spinoff than have pots and pans that are easy to clean without our scouring pad and elbow grease. Of course, much of the expertise in big science is focused on weapons and war and the spinoffs are themselves pricey, profitable and altogether pernicious.

Space science, including astronomy and satellite technology, planetary probes and the like, has led to countless fundamental scientific discoveries and driven forward technology and engineering along the way. Materials science benefits at the cutting edge, with high-performance and lightweight alloys, incredibly heat-resistant substances, photovoltaic materials and more. Of course, polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE, or Teflon) was not a spinoff of the space race. Roy Plunkett working at DuPont's research laboratories in the 1930s discovered PTFE, three decades before the moon landings. Indeed, the existence of a flexible and resistant polymer PTFE was essential to the space race itself being the only material suitable for a range of astro applications, as my old friend chemistry writer John Emsley discussed twenty years ago in his Molecule of the Month column for The Independent newspaper way back when.

It is sometimes hard to convince skeptics of the benefits of the big science that they often criticize with a dismissive "What's the point in that?". After all, why do we need to understand the stars and the planets, the orbits of asteroids, the mineral composition of comets? Why do we need to know how to identify and tame subatomic particles moving at close to the speed of light or see what energies are generated when such entities collide in vast underground particle playgrounds?

Of course, you and I hopefully know the fundamental science argument and the medical, environmental and materials spinoffs that do emerge. Not forgetting the genuine direct benefits of learning not only how to steer and mine asteroids but how to generate sustainable power from the atomic nucleus.

Humanity is a curious and adventurous species, we are made of the stuff of stars and many of us are endlessly fascinated by them, some dream of one day settling on distant planets that might orbit them. Such big dreams need very large schemes. If along the way, we find materials as useful as Teflon, then it may well be worth it.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".