Big Bird in Space

By Brad Dison

In the 1960s and 1970s, everyone, it seemed, was interested in the space program. With Sputnik, the Russians put the first artificial satellite into orbit around the Earth. A Russian cosmonaut became the first human to journey into outer space. American astronauts, not to be outdone by the Russians, accepted the challenge with the creation of NASA, and made many firsts in the space race including the first photographs of the Earth from space and the first spacewalk. President John F. Kennedy pledged “before the decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” a feat Americans accomplished in July, 1969. The space race continued in the 1970s with astronauts and cosmonauts making several trips to the Moon.

The excitement of the space program in the 1960s and 1970s was waning in the 1980s. Television stations no longer interrupted regular scheduled programming with rocket or space shuttle launches, transmissions from space, or landings. For many people, space exploration had become boring. Children, especially, had a hard time relating to and even understanding the tedious technical jargon the astronauts used. NASA searched for ways to boost children’s interest in space exploration and the space program.

On November 10, 1969, PBS began airing Sesame Street, a children’s educational television series which featured interactions between Muppets and humans. Big Bird has been a featured character on Sesame Street since its debut. The popularity of Sesame Street soared. The show’s audience grew to include people in about 150 countries. Children all over the world recognized and loved Big Bird.

In the early 1980s, a representative of NASA contacted Caroll Spinney, the man who performed Big Bird from 1969 to 2018. NASA proposed that they send Caroll along with the Big Bird costume into orbit around the Earth. The plan was for Big Bird to make a worldwide television broadcast from space. Big Bird would be and “outer-space ambassador to children all over the world.” Caroll talked the proposition over with Debra Gilroy, his wife and manager. They both agreed that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he could not pass up. “All kids loved Big Bird,” Caroll later explained, “but not all kids loved NASA. It’s not as exciting as ‘Star Wars’.” Return of the Jedi, the third installment in the Star Wars franchise, was playing in theaters when Nasa representatives contacted Caroll. After their short discussion, Caroll and Debra decided that Big Bird would go into space.

Scientists at NASA began working on the logistics of putting Big Bird into orbit. NASA faced two challenges with this plan; Caroll would have to undergo extensive training at NASA, and the scientists would have to get the 8-foot 2-inch Big Bird costume to fit into the storage compartments of the space shuttle. Caroll recalled that “the space shuttle was like being in two vans put together. There’s not a lot of room.” Scientists used a mockup of the space shuttle and filled it with mock ups of all of the experiments and equipment that would be aboard on the mission. Finally, they looked for room to store the Big Bird costume. Scientists rearranged as much as possible on the shuttle but eventually concluded that the Big Bird costume was just too large to fit in the cramped storage spaces on the space shuttle. NASA cancelled Big Bird’s trip into space.

NASA scientists eventually decided on a different program called Teacher in Space. They reviewed applications from over 11,000 teachers and selected a Social Studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, called Christa McAuliffe. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 73 Seconds into the flight, the space shuttle disintegrated and killed everyone on board including Christa McAuliffe, Big Bird’s replacement.

The Alexandria Town Talk, January 3, 1986, p.39.
Florida Today, January 29, 1986, p.1.
Hartford Courant, June 10, 2015, p.D1.
“John F. Kennedy ‘Landing a Man on the Moon’ Address to Congress – May 25, 1961.” Video, 3:46.
I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story. Directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker. New York City, New York: Copper Pot Pictures, 2015