It was January 28th, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after take-off with 7 astronauts on board. The shuttle disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. According to a recent article by NBC News, Big Bird could have been one of the astronauts on board.
NASA had approached Caroll Spinney, the actor who portrays Big Bird on Sesame Street, about taking part in the flight as part of a program to bring people with unique perspectives into space.
Said Spinney “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,” Spinney recalled last month in an essay published by The Guardian. “There wasn’t enough room for the puppet in the end, and I was replaced by a teacher.”
In response to inquiries, NASA released a statement earlier this year referencing its talks with the “Sesame Street” team:
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 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.
The teacher that Spinney references is New Hampshire high-school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who perished on-board the Challenger after participating in the Teacher in Space Project.
Said Spinney “In 1986, we took a break from filming to watch takeoff, and we all saw the ship blow apart,” Spinney wrote. “The six astronauts and teacher all died, and we just stood there crying.”
After the Challenger, NASA’s plans for the Space Flight Participant Program, which was already set to include a journalist later in the year, were cancelled.
While Big Bird’s size may have prevented him making the trip into space, NASA has continued to work with Sesame Street to bring science and exploration to young children. Several astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride, have appeared on “Sesame Street” episodes, and several Sesame Street toys have flown into space.