Near Miss, Far Miss

The almost-tragedy of Big Bird's demise.

Published July 15, 2022

Eight feet tall, yellow, and canonically 5 or 6 years old, Big Bird is a whole vibe.

NASA also never revealed how they planned to fit that beak in a helmet. (credit below)

If you grew up in the 1980s, one of the most unforgettable, indelible events of your — of our — childhood was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. And as traumatic as it was to see that on live television, it could’ve been even more gut-wrenching for the elementary-aged kids who watched it happen: Big Bird could’ve been on that shuttle too. 

“I once got a letter from NASA asking if I would be willing to join a mission to orbit the Earth as Big Bird, to encourage kids to get interested in space,” longtime Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney wrote in an essay for The Guardian in 2015. “There wasn’t enough room for the puppet in the end, and I was replaced by a teacher.” 

It’s true. NASA had contacted the creators of Sesame Street several years earlier, to pitch them on the idea of sending Big Bird skyward. “In 1984, NASA created the Space Flight Participant Program to select teachers, journalists, artists, and other people who could bring their unique perspective to the human spaceflight experience as a passenger on the space shuttle,” a NASA spokesperson told NBC News. “A review of past documentation shows there were initial conversations with Sesame Street regarding their potential participation on a Challenger flight, but that plan was never approved.”

Whether or not Big Bird’s height  — he stands 8 feet, 2 inches tall — was the reason he stayed earthbound has never been confirmed, but does note that NASA doesn’t allow its astronauts to be any taller than 6’3”. It is also unconfirmed whether NASA bailing on Big Bird was the exact reason why “a teacher” (Christa McAuliffe, who was killed in the explosion) ended up on the Challenger instead. 

What we do know is that Spinney and the rest of his Sesame Street castmates took a break to watch the shuttle launch that day. “All of a sudden, it goes boom and I said, ‘Oh my God,'” he told TODAY. “We all started crying. We knew it was a disaster. It made my scalp crawl to think I was supposed to be on that.”

A version of this story appeared on the news page of Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink.

Featured image: HaeB, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0