Space race pioneer as the commander of Soviet-era rockets
In 1941, the 13-year-old Vladimir Shatalov was working on the defences around Leningrad as the Soviet city faced annihilation at the hands of the Nazis. By 1969, from the Soviet base at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, he was soaring into orbit aboard the Soyuz 4 spacecraft. The world had turned.
The aim that day – 14 January 1969 – was to dock with Soyuz 5, and to transfer the flight engineer Aleksei Yeliseyev and research engineer Yevgeny Khrunovkrunov from Soyuz 5 into pilot cosmonaut Shatalov’s ship. A connecting tunnel for the Soviet craft had not yet been developed, so the transfer of the two cosmonauts had to take place via a space walk. Even in the era of space pioneers this was a major first, which helped pave the way for the permanent space stations that were to follow.
But in March 1969 the Americans performed a similar feat on Apollo 9 without needing a space walk, and that July, Apollo 11 took off for the Moon landing. The space race had been won by the US, and the Soviet Union, despite loud protestations that it had never been competing, and there wasn’t a race anyway, had lost. “The N1 lunar rocket did not make a single successful flight,” Shatalov, who has died aged 93, told the science historian Slava Gerovitch in the book Voices of the Soviet Space Program (2014). “The rocket exploded four times.”
By October 1969, Shatalov was in command of Soyuz 8 in a complex and abortive attempt to rendezvous with Soyuz 6 and 7. The following year he was offered the command of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, which he then vigorously declined. “I believe that being a cosmonaut is a profession,” he told Gerovitch, “and a cosmonaut must fly into space not just once, but two, three, five, 10 times. I had this goal, and I felt the strength and the desire to do that.”
That was not to be. In 1971, in another command role on Soyuz 10, Shatalov led attempts to dock with the world’s first space station, Salyut 1, which had been launched that April. Again, the operation, through no fault of his own, was not a success. In its wake he was pressured into taking the post – “quite difficult” – of assistant chief of the Soviet air force for spaceflight, which involved him in protracted departmental battles.
Shatalov was born in Petropavlovsk (Petropavl in Kazakh), Kazakhstan. In 1941, he left school in Leningrad (now, as before, St Petersburg). It was then that he participated in battles around the soon-to-be-besieged city. Obsessed with aviation, like his father, Alexander, a railway engineer, he was at an air force flying school two years later, and completed his studies there in 1945.
He graduated in 1949 from the Soviet fighter pilots’ training academy, the Kachinsky military aviation school in Krasny Kut, in the Saratov region. It would be near there, on 6 August 1961, that Gherman Titov landed in Vostok 2, after becoming the second cosmonaut – after Yuri Gagarin that April – to orbit the Earth.
After graduation, Shatalov stayed on at the school as an instructor, flying everything from Yakovlev UT-2 trainers to Yak-3s – a formidable Soviet equivalent of the Spitfire – before moving on to Rolls-Royce Nene-powered Mig-15 jet fighters.
In 1953 he joined the air force academy at Monino, 25 miles from Moscow, graduating with honours in 1956. Earmarked for success, he served as a squadron commander, deputy regiment commander, and then chief inspector pilot of 48th Air Force Army in the Odessa military district, with flying taking in what became the Sukhoi Su-7 fighter-bomber.
Shatalov was chosen for the cosmonaut corps in 1963. While the cosmonauts always lacked the media machine that emerged around their American equivalents, the Soviet Union’s space exploration efforts at that stage – perhaps unjustifiably – appeared to be well ahead of the US.
For two years Shatalov studied the Vostok, Voskhod, Voskhod 2 and 3, and Soyuz space programmes, the last of which was the basis for the projected Soviet Moon landing, and by 1965 had emerged as a fully qualified – albeit then earthbound – cosmonaut.
Between 1987 and 1991 he led the Gagarin cosmonaut training centre. He was the recipient of a host of awards, and was twice made a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Shatalov’s wife was Musa Andreyevna Ionova. They had two children, Yelena and Igor.
Vladimir Shatalov, cosmonaut, born 8 December 1927; died 15 June 2021