Man has not been alone in his journey into the outer reaches. Space monkeys? Yes, primates were, indeed, among our first astronauts. Space mutts? Dogs, too, orbited the earth in early space flights.
But a space Muppet?
It almost happened, NASA said.
The space agency confirmed that it considered sending Big Bird, Sesame Street’s feather-shedding yellow protagonist, on the space shuttle Challenger. The year was 1986 and the flight was the doomed January 28 mission that, on live television around the globe, blew up in a spiral of white smoke before the world’s disbelieving eyes.
At the time, NASA had been exploring ways of getting people excited about space travel and, perhaps, make taxpayers more comfortable with the vast amount of money officials had spent on the space shuttle program.
Caroll Spinney, the man inside the 8-foot-2-inch-tall bug-eyed bird suit, said he didn’t apply to go on the space ride. Instead, officials reached out to him.
He spoke of the exchange decades later, which NASA confirmed.
“I once got a letter from NASA, asking if I would be willing to join a mission to orbit the Earth as Big Bird,” Spinney said. The flighty Muppet’s presence, he added, would have been “to encourage kids to get interested in space.”
NASA’s Space Flight Participation Program had been in development for a couple of years at that point, and was to include journalists, teachers, and celebrities. Among those who applied were two giants in the broadcast news field, veteran anchors Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw.
Big Bird would have been the obvious choice for the younger set. His role on Sesame Street, the popular educational show on public television, was as a colorful stand-in for real children. He counted along and learned the alphabet, and his whimsical sense of wonder was hard to resist. The talks also included transporting Radar, Big Bird’s beloved teddy bear, on the flight.
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So why didn’t Big Bird make NASA’s cut?
The costume’s sheer bulk in an out-of-control zero-gravity environment was part of it.
“There wasn’t enough room for the puppet in the end,” Spinney said. “I was replaced by a teacher.”
That teacher was Christa McAuliffe, who trained for months for the space flight through NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. The New Hampshire high-school teacher died, along with the entire crew, when an O-ring failed and the shuttle disintegrated in the signature smoke trail that was burned into the public consciousness.
The shuttle had only been in the air 73 seconds.
Spinney was among the Sesame Street crew watching the ill-fated shuttle on TV that morning. He described his reaction to the surreal, twisted smoke plume as the realization of what happened sunk in.
“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.”
The disaster was tragic enough as it was, but had Big Bird been aboard, it would have been a nightmare for NASA and public television trying to explain to children what had happened to the Sesame Street fan favorite.
Since the Challenger accident, collaboration between NASA and Sesame Street has continued, but in safer ways.
In its Orion test capsule, built to take humans farther than they ever have gone before, NASA has packed up a number of Sesame Street artifacts, including Slimey the Worm, Grover’s cape, the rubber ducky Ernie sings fondly about, and a cookie from Cookie Monster.
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NASA celebrities have been on the show, as well, to promote the study of science and math and their application in technology. Those include astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride–both encouraging children to look to the stars.