I love just about everything to do with space. Outer space that is. Have done since Sputnik 1. Clever little Ruskies.
I knew my educational limitations, however, and from an early age I realised I'd probably not make it as an astronaut in my lifetime as they seemed to be super beings far removed from mere mortals like me.........well me at 11 years old anyway.
Now of course, if I had a spare $20m I could be up there. But my Virgin Media bill came today so no Space Station visit for me this month. Damn you Richard.
So I decided that as computers were important to NASA, I'd wangle my way into a career with them that way. Well, I had the career but, sadly, only made it to NASA as a tourist.
Over the years, and over many pints of beer, lager and Amaretto ( ok so I like my Amaretto in pints ), I've often defended the vast sums of money spent on 'getting out there' against the common complaint that 'it could be better spent on....................' Put anything at the end there from feeding starving Africans to building hospitals in Mumbai. Sometimes the defence was pretty hard, if not impossible, but I stuck to my guns or laser pistols or ray guns or whatever.
But there has always been one area of space exploration , to be very general about the words, which I've never been able to defend to the detractors and that's the bit to do with deep space telescopes. Well I need to be more specific here as my problem is with phrases like 'origins of the universe' and so on.
Even when those wonderful brave men (the lucky b*stards) were bouncing about on the moon and hitting golf balls many a mile for our amusement, they were using their little buckets and spades and bringing back samples to keep the scientists busy for decades. Why ? Well to help us learn about the composition of the moon of course. Why ? Well......ah.......so we can see if there was ever life on it. Why ? Ahhh...ummmmm....cough............oh I've got it......to help us better understand the origins of the universe !! There. Knew I'd get there eventually.
I guess the origins of the universe bit didn't matter then as it was lost in all the visual excitement of people actually going to another celestial body. It was the stuff of comics. It was the stuff of daring do. It was the stuff of legends. It was The Right Stuff.
NASA has recently announced it's successor to the Hubble Space Telescope which is now 17 years old and like my old car, well past it's prime. The James Webb Space Telescope will be, to quote NASA.......
.......the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.
Hmmmmm. You can see where I have a problem with this. I'm all for watching them scoot off for a paddle along the canals of Mars or to weave around the debris that is the rings of Saturn. That's all visually exciting and with some sort of useful purpose - even if it's just to send back a 'wish you were here' postcard and the Martian equivalent of a Spanish donkey. That's fine by me.
But this telescope alone is costing $4.5bn (£2.3bn), never mind the cost of getting it up there and keeping it plugged in for 10 years. And why ? Well it'll study the history of the Universe.
Quite. And this will be useful to us.....why ? Because....ah.......coughing longer and louder...........ummmmm..........fancy a Martian postcard, sonny ???
And who pays for this thing ? Maybe it'll be sponsored !!!
The Ronald McDonald JW Space Telescope. Has a nice cozy ring to it.
The Marlboro JW Space Telescope...........ohhhh a bit too controversial.
The Screwed Again US Taxpayers JW Space Telescope. Perfect.
I realise this is showing up my narrow mindedness and just because I don't see the point of something, doesn't mean it's not a good thing. I mean look at baseball !
The thing is, if someone gave me a pair of binoculars and placed me on a nudist beach, I too would be using technology to view distant bodies and gaining useful knowledge about their composition. I'd probably get a smack in the face for my efforts but hey, no pain no gain as we say in the scientific community.
So harrahh for the new telescope...........I guess. Those who care about it seem to have been searching for the elusive origins of the Universe for some time now. Probably as long as the sick people in Mumbai have been waiting for that hospital.
Lets hope they all get what they're looking for.....however distant that may be.