In the same period, he was chosen to join the American space shuttle program, to interest children in science. Scheduled to fly in the 1986 mission of the doomed shuttle Challenger, Spinney, in character Big Bird, was deemed too large for the available cabin space and was replaced by schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
As the puppet became too strenuous for Spinney to handle alone, Sesame Street producers turned to other artists to replicate some of Big Bird’s moves. The voice work, however, remained Spinney’s. In 2018, he announced his retirement, giving the role to his understudy, Matt Vogel.
Spinney wrote How to be a Grouch (1976), as well as a 2003 memoir under his own name. It was Big Bird, rather than Spinney, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
His voice can also be heard on The Muppet Alphabet Album (1971), Sesame Street: Big Bird Leads the Band (1977), and Oscar’s Trashy Songs (1997). In 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy and a documentary, I Am Big Bird, was released in 2015.
After the failure of his first marriage in 1971, Spinney, second, married Debra Jean Gilroy, a former secretary in the office of the Muppets. She survives him, along with three children from his first marriage.