Caroll Spinney, Big Bird on 'Sesame Street' Who Once Considered a Shuttle Flight, Dies at 85

Puppeteer Caroll Spinney holds a photograph of himself and two "Sesame Street" puppets he controlled in 2012.
Puppeteer Caroll Spinney holds a photograph of himself and two "Sesame Street" puppets he controlled in 2012. (Image credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty)

Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind famous "Sesame Street" characters such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died Sunday (Dec. 8) at age 85, according to Sesame Workshop. Big Bird's influence in the educational world was so vast that Spinney (plus Big Bird) was considered for a spaceflight on the space shuttle Challenger.

The Big Bird puppet, however, is 8 feet 2 inches (248 centimeters) tall — which is a very tight fit aboard a spaceship. Current NASA astronaut requirements don't allow astronauts to exceed 75 inches, or 6 feet 3 inches (190 cm), in height.

Spinney spoke about the spaceflight offer in "I Am Big Bird," a 2015 documentary about the character and Spinney's life. "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 said in an essay in The Guardian that same year. "There wasn't enough room for the puppet in the end, and I was replaced by a teacher."

Spinney died after a living for a period of time with dystonia, a condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions.

Related: Photos: Sesame Street's Elmo Visits NASA

That teacher was New Hampshire's Christa McAuliffe, who died along with six other astronauts on Jan. 28, 1986, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded minutes after takeoff. "We took a break from filming to watch takeoff, and we all saw the ship blow apart," Spinney added in the essay. "The six astronauts and teacher all died, and we just stood there crying."

NASA made numerous redesigns to the space shuttle before approving flights again in 1988 and tightened its policies concerning flying non-government astronauts.

McAuliffe and a few other individuals flew under the payload specialist program, which allowed companies and countries to fly people who were responsible for only a small range of experiments. The program offered a path for many international astronauts (such as from Europe or Canada) to reach space and prepare for the eventual International Space Station collaboration. 

As the program matured, NASA extended the payload specialist program to non-professional astronauts, such as teachers, journalists and politicians, to increase public engagement. These initiatives were canceled after Challenger. Eventually, NASA dropped the payload specialist classification from shuttle manifests to ensure every astronaut received more extensive training before spaceflight. 

NASA confirmed in 2015 that it had been in very early talks with "Sesame Street" to fly on one of the Challenger spaceflights, but added those discussions never got very far. The statement did not specify which shuttle flight Spinney was considered for, but NASA confirmed the agency was considering flying Spinney, Big Bird and the bird's teddy bear, Radar.

"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," NASA said in a 2015 statement to 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."

While "Sesame Street" puppeteers never made it to space, NASA and the 50-year-old television program have collaborated numerous times over the decades. For example, Ernie's rubber duck and a cookie from the Cookie Monster both flew aboard the Orion spacecraft in its 2014 orbital test. Several astronauts have also appeared on "Sesame Street" over the years, including the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

In 2008, Spinney portrayed Big Bird in the short film "One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure" in which Big Bird helps children learn about the night sky. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: