It’s been a bad month for Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov. In 1961, at age 25, he became the second person to orbit the Earth, a feat he performed 17 times before reentry. Since then, over 500 people have gone into space, but none younger than he—until yesterday, when 18-year-old Oliver Daemen crossed the Kármán line in a space capsule with billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Bezos’ brother Mark, and 82-year-old Wally Funk. Titov had undergone a rigorous training and selection process; Daemen got the seat from his father’s auction bid and trained for 14 hours.

But losing the record wasn’t the only indignity for Titov, who was also the first person to vomit in space. During a visit to Seattle in 1962, he was asked about how the magical properties of space travel—you know, seeing the celestial skies close up and Mother Earth as a verdant carpet where all humanity was bound—might have affected his philosophy. The first person to spend more than a day in that elevated state had none of it. “Sometimes people are saying that God is out there,” he said. “I was looking around attentively all day, but I didn’t find anybody there. I saw neither angels nor God.”

WIRED’s Steven Levy is reporting daily from Van Horn, Texas, where Jeff Bezos will be among the first passengers aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket system. You can read the previous dispatches here and here.

Titov died in 2000 at age 65, but somewhere—presumably not heaven, since he never bought that concept—he is probably fuming. This month has been all about how viewing the Earth from space—even the dicey definition of “space” from a barely-there demarcation of either 50 or 60 miles—will change your life, make you realize that we’re all in this together, and put you face-to-face with God, without a Covid mask.

That was readily apparent when Bezos and his three crewmates on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket returned from their 10-minute journey. All four agreed that space was an awesome, life-changing experience. In his first broadcast interview, Bezos first said that it was so overwhelming that he didn’t have the verbal skills to express it—maybe only a poet could do that. Later, in a postflight press conference, he attempted it.

“OH MY GOD!” was his first reply to the question on how it felt. Then he got very quiet and tried to describe a feeling where, almost like the end of Kubrick’s 2001, space had taken him to a primal restoration of the human state. “It felt so normal, even as if humans were evolved to be in that environment, which I know isn’t possible, but it felt so serene, and peaceful.”

And sure, Bezos cares deeply about the environment—he’s put $10 billion into a climate fund—but he really didn’t get how fragile the Earth was until he peered down on it from above the Kármán line. “The most profound thing for me was looking at the Earth, and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said. “When we’re driving around in our cars, the atmosphere is so gigantic, and we’re tiny things, and the atmosphere is so big. But when you get above it, you see it’s incredibly thin! It’s this tiny little fragile thing. It’s one thing to recognize it intellectually; it’s another thing to see it.”


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This came on the heels of similarly dreamy exclamations by another space billionaire, Richard Branson, who also portrayed his own self-financed suborbital jaunt as something beyond human language. “I’m never going to be able to do justice to it,” he said at his own press conference. “It’s indescribably beautiful.” A word he kept using was “inspiration”—space, in his view, was not an infinite void but a life-changing mountaintop that symbolizes what humans could accomplish.

Even Virgin’s lead operations engineer, Colin Bennett, who was on the flight, hopped onto the awe train, depicting space as kind of a heaven. “It’s very zen,” he said. “It’s very peaceful up there as well. What jumped out at me were the colors and how far away it looked … I was just mesmerized.”