Big Bird actor had been in talks with NASA to join doomed Challenger flight

"We knew it was a disaster. It made my scalp crawl to think I was supposed to be on that," Spinney recalled.
Big Bird actor Caroll Spinney had been in talks with NASA to join the Challenger shuttle flight, which exploded after liftoff in 1986.
Big Bird actor Caroll Spinney had been in talks with NASA to join the Challenger shuttle flight, which exploded after liftoff in 1986.Getty Images

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/ Source: TODAY
By Alyssa Newcomb

Big Bird actor Caroll Spinney, who died on Sunday at the age of 85, recalled watching the Challenger Shuttle explode in 1986 and having a terrible feeling: that could have been him.

NASA had been in talks with Spinney about possibly sending Big Bird to space as a way to get more children interested in science, however Spinney, and his 8-foot-2 costume weren't given a seat on the doomed flight. Instead, NASA sent Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire.

The "Sesame Street" team took a break from filming to watch the shuttle take off on January 28, 1986.

"All of a sudden, it goes boom and I said, 'Oh my God,'" Spinney told TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager during an interview in 2015. "We all started crying. We knew it was a disaster. It made my scalp crawl to think I was supposed to be on that."

The story has made the rounds over the years, and was told again in "I am Big Bird," a 2014 documentary that gave "Sesame Street" fans an intimate look at the man behind that big, yellow beak.

After the documentary was released, NASA confirmed that it had been in initial talks with "Sesame Street" to send Big Bird and his teddy bear, Radar, into space.

"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 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."

Author and puppeteer Caroll Spinney poses for a photo at the 15th Annual Sesame Workshop Benefit Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 31, 2017 in New York City.Mike Coppola / WireImage

After the explosion, the space flight participant program was closed.

While the moment haunted Spinney, he went on to continue playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch until he retired last year, marking an incredible 50-year run on television.

"Oscar is kind of cool. It is fun to play somebody very different than oneself," Spinney told TODAY. "On the other hand, Big Bird is my kid. In some ways, I love him best."

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