Big Bird has been a Sesame Street regular since 1969, but his time on the well-received and long-running series was almost tragically cut short. Recently, Caroll Spinney, the voice behind the beloved Sesame Street character, revealed that Big Bird was originally scheduled to board the Space Shuttle Challenger for its doomed mission back in 1986. Thanks to some logistical problems, the character never made it on the flight and was able to avoid the tragic fate that befell the other crew members.
Big Bird has been voiced by Spinney since 1969, and when NASA first began planning the Challenger mission, the government agency invited Spinney to wear the Big Bird suit and head up into space. The goal of the project was to get young children more excited about the space program. Big Bird was happy to go, but there were practical problems when NASA realized Big Bird is 8’ 2’’ tall. Instead of Big Bird, the organization eventually asked schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe to take a part in the 1986 Challenger mission and to talk to kids on the ground during the space flight.
Spinney, who is still rocking the voice of Big Bird at 81 years of age, recently told the CBC that the Sesame Street crew actually stopped filming the series in order to watch the Challenger launch. Unfortunately, the broadcast did not go as planned.
We were taping another episode of Sesame Street at the time it went up and they said, 'The ship is about to take off so we’re going to punch the broadcast of the takeoff onto the monitors on the set.' So we stopped working and watched the monitors and when we saw it blow up, it was like my scalp crawled.
The Challenger mission featured five astronauts and two payload specialists, one of them Christa McAuliffe. A problem with an O-ring seal caused a solid rocket booster to fail at liftoff, setting off a chain reaction of problems that led to the malfunctioning of the aircraft and the eventual deaths of everyone on board. It was a tragedy that was witnessed by a good chunk of the American population and has been part of cultural consciousness in the time since. It’s just fortunate that a children’s icon like Big Bird (and Spinney) was not also lost in the accident or the blow may have been even more psychologically damning for children.
It's impossible to know how Sesame Street would have moved on from the tragedy or whether they would have been able to turn it into a teachable moment. Thankfully, we never found out, though that life saved does little to lessen the overall tragedy that is still being felt at NASA today. Space is filled with wonders that are worth exploring, but the Challenger disaster is a reminder that exploring can be a dangerous pursuit.