The Challenger Disaster and Big Bird – REWIND

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Originally released May of 2021. One of America’s favorite children’s characters and Sesame Street resident, Big Bird, was almost on board the ill-fated Challenger Space Shuttle during its disastrous mission in 1986. In this episode, we tell three stories: one about Big Bird, one about the Challenger, and one about how the two almost came together. Then Jim Henson fan Eric Dittelman joins us for the quick quiz!

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The Cobra Effect

Like so many of Jim Henson’s creations, Big Bird started as a simple sketch. He was creating characters for a new television show, Sesame Street. The producers of the show had asked the Henson create some of his muppets for the show that would interact with the human characters on Sesame Street. The original sketch of Big Bird, which I’ll put in the show notes, is nothing but a pencil drawing of a man with the big bird outline around him holding his arm straight above his head to make the mouth of the tall figure talk. There’s also a color drawing of what he thought Big Bird looked like and it ended up being pretty similar to the character that we now know. 

Henson’s original sketch of Big Bird

The muppet’s chief puppet creator, Kermit Love, built the Big Bird costume as a larger than life, eight foot two creation. The right arm of the person inside would control the mouth and face and the left arm would control Big Bird’s left wing. There wasn’t a spot for holes to see out, so a small camera would lead to a tiny television inside the costume. One interesting note that I found while researching this – Kermit Love was particularly proud of the fact that Big Bird was created to occasionally shed a yellow feather or two as he moved around. Love compared this to a tall tree dropping the occasional leaf. 

The rest of Big Bird is all due to the man who is synonymous with the character – Carol Spinney. Spinney gave Big Bird his voice, his mannerisms, and his child-like demeanor, which he’s described as perpetually six years old. Carol had worked with Jim Henson for the last seven years after the two met at a puppeteering convention. He played both the parts of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and worked on the show for 49 years. One of the ways that Big Bird taught children was through frequently misunderstanding things – the same types of things that a 6 year old might misunderstand – and that presented a brilliant way for the children to learn along with Big Bird. 

Since he first appeared on the very first episode of Sesame Street on November 10th, 1969, Big Bird rose to huge popularity and fame and became a symbol for educational television. He’s met with many famous guests. <Barbara bush audio> That was Carol Spinney as Big Bird appearing on Sesame Street with Barbara Bush. Big Bird appeared with every first lady from Pat Nixon to Dr. Jill Biden with the only exceptions being Nancy Reagan and Melania Trump. As far as I could tell, those are the only two first ladies never to meet with Big Bird. 

When Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990. And at his memorial service, Big Bird sang a song that will go down in history. Carol Spinney continued playing Big Bird until 2018 and while neither Jim Henson nor Carol Spinney are with us today the character of Big Bird continues on – still six years old. 

The second story is one that I have a really strong memory of. So picture this with me. I’m in the first grade. They’ve wheeled a television cart into the classroom so we could take part in a special event – the Challenger Space Shuttle lift off. We were so excited. My first grade teacher, Miss Hayes – was so excited for us to witness the launch. Not many people know this, but the Challenger lift off was not watched live by that many Americans. A lot of people have a sort of Mandela effect that they remember watching it live at home, but in reality, NASA Space Shuttle missions had become fairly commonplace and weren’t seen as particularly noteworthy by the late 80s. It was broadcast live on CNN, but people weren’t watching cable news round the clock like they do now. Most people who remember watching it actually witnessed it when the news replayed the event after it happened. Even so, a survey was conducted that concluded 85% of Americans knew about within an hour. But for people my age – people in grade school at the time, it WAS noteworthy and was shown in every classroom because of a special guest on the shuttle. 

The Crew of STS-51-L Challenger Space Shuttle Mission. McAuliffe is pictured standing second from left.

Christa McAuliffe was a 37 year old social studies school teacher from New Hampshire who was going to be the first teacher in space. She was selected from more than 11,000 applicants.   The Teacher in Space program had been announced by Ronald Reagan in 1984 to inspire students and increase interest in math, science and space exploration. For that reason, the launch of the Challenger for its mission STS-51-L was shown live in classrooms across America on January 28, 1986. 

McAuliffe was a civilian but had trained with NASA for a year after being chosen. She was among the 6 other NASA crew members on board that day and – as many know – one minute and thirteen seconds after lift off, disaster struck.

No one survived the disaster. The teacher in space program was cancelled soon after. After lengthy investigations, it was determined that a rubber gasket in the solid rocket booster had weakened do to the freezing temperatures before the launch. NASA knew about this weakness, but this particular mission had been delayed so many times, they pushed to launch anyway.

So back to that first grade classroom. The image of that craft breaking apart on television still remains with me. I remember turning around to see Miss Hayes crying. 

The third story is where stories one and two come together. Before Christa McAuliffe, before the 11,000 applicants, even before the Teacher in Space program, another idea was proposed. It was a priority to get kids interested in space and math and science. They knew they wanted to use the Space Shuttle missions to do that. 

So in the early 1980’s, Carol Spinney got a letter. <audio from spinney> Carol Spinney, as Big Bird would be the first American civilian in space. Millions of American school children would get to see one of their childhood friends, Big Bird, fly into space. Spinney would have to undergo testing and training – but it never got to that point.

The big bird costume was big. It weight ten pounds, but it took up a LOT of area. They couldn’t figure out how they would stow the Big Bird suit in the tight quarters of the Challenger.

After it was decided that Big Bird wouldn’t be able to do the mission, they decided that Big Bird’s teddy bear, Radar would be on the mission. This idea would eventually be scrapped with the development of the Teacher in Space concept.

Big Bird never went to space. It wasn’t meant to be. The Challenger space shuttle disaster was a horrible tragedy. And it would have been one that would have absolutely devastated children if their beloved friend Big Bird had been one of those souls lost on board. 

Today, Big Bird continues to delight and educate children. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, one of just a few fictional characters to receive the honor. He’s appeared in movies, television shows, Saturday night live, the tonight show and has never stopped that original mission of educating kids from their level – just like he’s done for 52 years.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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