The Space Flight Participant Program Sought To Send Civilians To Space
In the early 1980s, NASA had a brand-new space shuttle on their hands, but the general public’s interest in space remained tepid at best after the excitement of the race to the Moon had faded. The agency set out on a PR campaign, motivated in large part by pressure to justify the cost of the shuttle’s development, that aimed to get the public on board with space travel in more ways than one.
Article ImageNASA launched the Space Flight Participant Program, an initiative they hoped would inflame public interest in the space shuttle by sending a series of everyday people into orbit alongside teams of astronauts. The proposal called for media personalities, celebrities, and other public figures to be included; in the end, the agency received dozens of applications. Among the more famous applicants seeking a free trip to the stars were Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw.
With The Challenger Mission, NASA Specifically Wanted To Capture The Interest Of Children
NASA had successfully flown two space shuttles - the Challenger and the Columbia - by the middle of the decade, though the Space Flight Participant Program had yet to get off the ground. For the Challenger’s next scheduled launch in 1986, NASA specifically wanted to get the children of the nation excited about the possibilities of space travel.
This train of thought led to the Teacher in Space Project, an offshoot of the Participation Program that sought to put a public school teacher on board the Challenger. Eventually, the agency selected Christa McAuliffe to be the first official space flight participant - but they almost went in a very different direction.
Enter: Big Bird
Before settling on the Teacher in Space Project, NASA considered sending a children’s entertainer on the mission instead - and there’s no one bigger in that field, both figuratively and literally, than Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. Though no one from the show responded to NASA’s call for space flight participants, NASA themselves reached out to start a conversation about the logistics of launching a puppet into orbit.
NASA wasn’t just interested in the Big Bird suit; they also wanted to send Caroll Spinney, the actor best known for wearing the costume. Spinney recalls having discussions with the creators of Sesame Street and NASA about catching a lift on the Challenger, but the talks ultimately went nowhere.
NASA has been rather quiet about their negotiations with the Sesame Street team, only confirming for the first time in 2015 that such a plan had ever been proposed. The agency’s only official statement on the matter was to say that the plan had never been approved:
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. 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.
From Spinney’s own recollections, it was Big Bird’s trademark characteristic that prevented him from boarding the Challenger, with his 8’2” stature proving a logistical nightmare in the already cramped conditions aboard the space shuttle. When it comes to leaving the atmosphere, space of the interior variety is also a chief concern, and there was just no way to justify clearing enough room in the cockpit for an enormous yellow puppet.
It’s unclear just how far into the planning process NASA got, and there are no specific details pertaining to how they hoped to pull off such a task. One might imagine that Spinney’s spacesuit would have been placed inside of the Big Bird costume. However, the imagery of the puppet’s gigantic beak squashed inside an astronaut’s helmet would have been hard to resist, so Big Bird might have gotten a spacesuit all his own.
In the end, it’s easy to see how a fun idea quickly turned into an unfeasible pipe dream. Still, it sounds as though NASA reached out with enough seriousness to Spinney that he considered it a real possibility that he could have traveled to space in 1986.
He recalled in a column for The Guardian:
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. There wasn’t enough room for the puppet in the end, and I was replaced by a teacher.
A Traumatic Outcome
Given the tragic outcome of the January 28, 1986, Challenger mission, it’s easy to understand why Spinney has mixed feelings about the whole thing. In his article for The Guardian, he wrote, “In 1986, we took a break from filming to watch takeoff, and we all saw the ship blow apart. The six astronauts and teacher all died, and we just stood there crying.”
Spinney was a little more specific about that fateful day in a 2014 interview, telling the CBC about the awful feeling he got from watching others perish in a space flight he was supposed to be on. He recalled:
We were taping another episode of Sesame Street at the time it went up and they said, "The ship is about to take off so we’re going to punch the broadcast of the takeoff onto the monitors on the set." So we stopped working and watched the monitors and when we saw it blow up, it was like my scalp crawled.
I couldn’t believe how horrible that was and we were grieving for the pilots and the teacher [Christa McAuliffe], for their families and them losing their life like that. So tragic.
Spinney and his Sesame Street co-workers weren’t the only ones watching as the Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch. As part of the Teacher in Space Project, schools nationwide were encouraged to tune into ABC’s broadcast of the shuttle’s flight with McAuliffe on board. Millions of students of all ages watched as McAuliffe and her fellow astronauts passed. One can only imagine how much more intense that trauma would have been if the nation’s children had to watch Big Bird perish alongside the rest of the crew.
In addition to the immense human tragedy of the moment, the Challenger incident also had the exact opposite effect that NASA was hoping for with the Space Flight Participant Program: The general public developed a fear of, rather than excitement for, space travel. McAuliffe was the first and last space flight participant, as the program was shuttered soon after. She was also the last civilian in space for more than a decade, until billionaire Dennis Tito funded his own trip to the International Space Station in 2001.