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

Space.com | 1/28/1986 | Elizabeth Howell
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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.

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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.

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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."

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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...
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