Born in Petropavlovsk in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union, his father Alexander was a railway engineer who was obsessed with flight.
The family moved to Leningrad and Vladimir went to the romantically named ‘School number 4’. The family were living in the city when the Nazis laid siege to it in 1941.
Vladimir began working alongside his father in Svyazrem-1, a train repairing and restoration factory. He was involved in various battles defending the city and helped build the ‘Ice Road’ (a.k.a. the Road of Life) across Lake Lagoda, the only route in and out of the city.
The family was eventually evacuated from Leningrad and went back to Petropavlovsk, where Vladimir finished his schooling at ‘School number 7’.
He went to an air force flying school in 1943 before being upgraded in 1945 to Kachinsky Military Aviation School at Krasny Kut, Saratov.
He graduated as a fighter pilot in 1949 and joined the 6th Voronezh Air Force. However, he quickly returned to Kachinsky to serve as a flying instructor. He flew every type of plane that was possible, the Yakolev UT-2, the Yak 3 (the equivalent of a Spitfire) and the MIG 15 jet (powered with a Rolls Royce engine). He was considered the expert at flying Yaks and MIGs.
In 1953 he moved to the air force academy at Monino, just outside Moscow and graduated with honours in 1956.
He then married Musa Andreyevna Ionova, and they went on to have two children.
Vladimir continued to get rapid promotions and he and his family moved from place to place. He was back at Krasny Kut when, in August 1961, the second cosmonaut to go into space, Gherman Titov (following Yuri Gagarin) landed Vostok-2 at the air base after a successful flight into space. Vladimir decided that was what he really wanted to do, but figured he was now too old to be selected.
Another promotion saw him as Chief Inspector Pilot based in Odessa. In 1962, he was asked to provide a list of five of his pilots who would make suitable cosmonauts. He put his own name at the top of the list.
In 1963, he first passed a medical. Then he took exams and passed easily. Finally, he faced an interview and was in awe when he found Yuri Gagarin was on the panel. He was selected for cosmonaut training.
At this stage the USSR was leading the space race, but unlike the Americans there was no media coverage of their achievements, so it went unnoticed by the world. The USSR was determined the have the first man on the moon.
He faced two years of training on the Soviet space programme (Vostok, Voskhod 1, 2 and 3 and Soyuz) before qualifying in 1965. He was initially classed as a “listener cosmonaut.”
Vladimir was finally launched into space in January 1969, on Soyuz 4. He was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The aim was to meet up with Soyuz 5 and complete the first spacewalk, transferring two other cosmonauts, Aleksei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov, into Vladimir’s ship.
But in their desperation to be ahead of the Americans, the Soviets were not quite ready. The planned space tunnel in which the cosmonauts would transfer was not complete – so they had to use handrails attached to the side of the spaceships.
Nevertheless, the transfer was a success and paved the way for permanent space stations.
But in July 1969, the Americans put the first men on the moon and won the space race. The USSR stayed quiet, apart from claiming there was no space race and no competition.
Years later, Vladimir Shatalov admitted that the N1 Lunar Rocket, which was supposed to be putting cosmonauts on the moon, had exploded four times in 1969 (with unknown fatalities), thus knocking the USSR out of the space race.
In October 1969, Shatalov was back in space again, commanding Soyuz 8. It tried to dock with Soyuz 6 and 7. It was a very complex operation – and it was unsuccessful due to equipment failure.
In 1970, he was offered command of the Cosmonaut Training Centre. He turned it down because accepting the job would mean no more trips into space. “I believe that being a cosmonaut is a profession…and a cosmonaut must fly into space not just once but 2, 3, 5, 10 times. I had this goal, and I felt the strength and the desire to do that.”
He was back in space in 1971 – the first human being to be in space three times.
It was another tricky mission, commanding Soyuz 10 and trying to dock with the first space station, Salyut-1. Again, it failed due to circumstances beyond his control.
But the Soviet Union would not accept failure and refused to take the blame. Vladimir was made the scapegoat and was moved sideways to become Chief of the Soviet Air Force – for Spaceflight, a very bureaucratic, deskbound job (which he hated).
He served on the State Commission on Manned Space Flights between 1971 and 1991.
In 1980 he was the consultant on the science fiction film ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’.
He was awarded the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ twice and received the USSR’s highest honour, the ‘Order of Lenin’ (three times) – and many other USSR awards. He took pride in getting awards from other countries too.
In 1987 he got the job he really wanted, leading the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.
But after the Soviet Union collapsed, the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin demoted him to the ‘reserve’ (in 1992). He promptly retired from military service.
He was buried in Moscow with full military honours.
The thing he was most proud of is that a small impact crater on the far side of the moon is named Shatalov, recognizing his contribution to space flight.
RIP – Russia’s Inspirational Pilot