After the mission of Soyuz 10 Rukavishnikov was nominated as the flight engineer on Leonov’s Soyuz 12 crew, which was to make the second visit to the Salyut space station, but this crew was stood down when it became necessary to revise the design of the spacecraft after the deaths of the Soyuz 11 crew. He made two further space flights. The first occasion was on Soyuz 16, which was a six-day test in December 1974 in preparation for the joint mission with the Americans the following summer. The spacecraft was commanded by Anatoliy Filipchenko, and Rukavishnikov was the flight engineer. He trained as the commander of the backup crew for Soyuz 28. This was the first flight of the Interkosmos programme, and took a Czechoslovakian cosmonaut to Salyut 6. When he flew Soyuz 33 in April 1979 he became the first civilian to command a Soviet ship. His passenger was Georgiy Ivanov (Kakalov) of Bulgaria. The Igla rendezvous system locked onto Salyut 6 and began to navigate towards it, but when the range reduced to 4 km and they saw the station for the first time a six-second firing of the main rocket engine was cut short after three seconds! Rukavishnikov manually restarted the engine, but there was a terrible noise and it cut off again. On board the station, Vladimir Lyakhov and Valeriy Ryumin reported to the TsUP that they had observed sparks from the spacecraft’s propulsion module. The rendezvous had to be abandoned. This was the first and only failure of the main engine of a Soyuz. The crew were told to rest while the engineers on Earth decided what to do. The technical director of the flight was Yeliseyev, who precisely eight years earlier had flown with Rukavishnikov on Soyuz 10 in an attempt to dock with the original Salyut station!

Meanwhile in space, Rukavishnikov found it difficult simply to rest:

Throughout the night I told myself that as commander I was responsible not only for myself and the ship but also for Georgiy. I had to analyse all of the variables and be ready to answer any queries from Earth, or to execute any directions they provided.

As I was thinking, Georgiy asked: “Captain, shall we refresh a bit?’’

We carried Bulgarian foodstuffs as a gift for the Salyut 6 crew. “Let’s get out the presents,’’ I decided.

“Can we?’’

“Now we can.’’

We refreshed ourselves. I only had a little, but Georgiy really ate well.

“Off to sleep,’’ I told him. “We have to get good rest. Tomorrow we’ll be busy.’’

Meanwhile, Yeliseyev called the engine designers and experts in ballistics to the TsUP and together they thoroughly analysed the situation. Luckily, the Soyuz had a reserve braking engine (DKD). Unlike the main engine this could be fired just once, for the braking manoeuvre. But there was some concern, because its propellant and electrical lines were located close to those of the main engine, which had evidently suffered a serious problem. ft was to be hoped that the reserve engine had not been damaged. ft was possible that the engine would start and then cut off prematurely. ff it were to fire for less than 90 seconds, the crew would require to execute a series of firings of the small docking and orientation engines (DPO) to depart from orbit, but this would result in a return far from the planned landing site. At 6.46.49 p. m. on 12 April the reserve engine was activated to make a 188-second burn. Rukavishnikov inferred from the buzzing sound transmitted through the structure of the spacecraft that the engine was not operating at full power. After 188 seconds had elapsed and it failed to shut off automatically he took the decision to keep it running for another 25 seconds before he turned it off. As a result, the descent was steeper than normal, and followed a ballistic trajectory that subjected the occupants to peak deceleration load of 8 g. To everyone’s relief, the descent module landed safely at 7.35 p. m. at a point 320 km southeast of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. When he reflected upon his second failed attempt to dock with a Salyut, he joked: “the stations did not wish me on board’’.

fn April 1980 Rukavishnikov gained a master’s degree at the Moscow fnstitute of Engineering and Physics (MfFf). Meanwhile, he was training as commander of the backup crew for Soyuz T-3. fnitially, the objective of this flight was to undertake an extensive medical research programme on board Salyut 6, but this was altered to perform maintenance on the station to enable it to operate long enough to complete the fnterkosmos programme. Undeterred, Rukavishnikov focused his hopes on the forthcoming Salyut 7, and from September 1983 to February 1984 trained as flight engineer for the mission that was to carry the first fndian cosmonaut. However, with just two months remaining to the launch date he caught the flu, and thereby lost not only his opportunity to visit a space station but also the chance to become one of the few Soviets to fly four times in space. His unsympathetic colleagues joked that all Salyuts had a built in “anti-Rukavishnikov device’’.

On leaving the cosmonaut group in July 1978 Rukavishnikov became a deputy to the director of one of the departments of NPO Energiya, then retired in November 1999. fn 1981 he became president of the Soviet Cosmonautics Federation,[140] and in this role vigorously sought support from the Kremlin for a number of programmes. He also arranged for a medal to be given to an anonymous artist who had for many years painted artwork depicting the space programme. fn addition, he led the radio show On Space Orbits. Although he gave the appearance of having a very serious personality, those who knew him well said he was vibrant and always interesting to be with.

Two views of Nikolay Rukavishnikov (foreground) and Anatoliy Filipchenko in the Soyuz simulator.

“The stations did not wish me on board.” Rukavishnikov (foreground) and the Bulgarian cosmonaut Georgiy Ivanov made a dramatic return after their Soyuz 33 spacecraft suffered a main engine failure on the way to the Salyut 6 space station.

Rukavishnikov stands in front of the Soyuz simulator with the prime and backup crewmembers for the Indian mission to Salyut 7, but a medical complaint caused his replacement 2 months before the launch.

In the space of six years Rukavishnikov’s family suffered three tragedies. First his wife Nina died in 2000. Those closest to him gathered for his 70th birthday on 18 September 2002, but his memory was impaired by Alzheimer disease. Although he had survived one heart attack, the second was followed by pulmonary problems and he died in Burdenko hospital on 19 October 2002. He was buried in Ostankinsko Cemetery. Finally, in January 2006 his only child, Vladimir, succumbed to a severe illness and died aged only 41. He was buried alongside his father. Until the very end of his life Vladimir had unselfishly offered details of his father’s life to anyone who expressed an interest.

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