The Story of Frank Ellis, Naval Aviator, Astronaut Hopeful, and Double Amputee

Emily Carney
The Making of an Ex-Nuke
8 min readDec 14, 2022


Frank Ellis lost both legs. Then he decided to become a NASA astronaut.

The cover of No Man Walks Alone, Frank Ellis’ 1968 memoir.

Many people have asked me what I was thinking about when I finally realized my jet fighter was going to crash, probably taking me with it because I was only sixty-five feet above the ground, which is about 235 feet too low for a successful, according-to-the-book, ejection. Was I praying? Or thinking of my wife and children? Or was my life passing in fast review before my eyes? No. I remember I said one thing: “Holy mackerel!” — Frank Ellis, No Man Walks Alone

The European Space Agency (ESA) recently announced the selection of its newest astronaut group, which includes 41-year-old John McFall (United Kingdom). McFall, who has a background in sports and exercise science, lost his right leg at age 19 due to injuries sustained from a motorcycle accident. Since then, he has become an impressive athlete and completed surgical training; according to his ESA biography, “He became a professional track and field athlete in 2005, going on to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a Paralympic sprinter, class T42.”

McFall is the world’s first agency astronaut with a significant limb difference[1]. However, during the 1960s, one naval aviator was determined to become NASA’s first astronaut with a disability. Despite missing both legs due to a catastrophic plane crash, Frank Ellis defied the odds, survived his injuries, and quickly learned to walk again, thanks to prosthetics. His quest to return to flight status and join NASA’s astronaut corps would be his only barrier to living a “normal” life.

“No Man Walks Alone”

On July 11, 1962, Frank Ellis ferried an F-9 Cougar from Norfolk, Virginia, to Point Mugu Naval Air Station near Oxnard, California. As he approached the air station passing over northwest Los Angeles, he began experiencing problems with the plane’s elevator trim system. Within moments, a “complete nose-down trim failure suddenly occurred,” and Ellis was in serious trouble. Narrowly avoiding a populated trailer park and trailer in his flight path, he managed to steer the Cougar towards an open field and ejected — however, he ejected much lower than the recommended altitude. Ellis was catapulted like a floppy doll through eucalyptus trees to the ground as the plane disintegrated into a sickening fireball. Ellis recalled in his 1968 book, No Man Walks Alone:

That’s all I remember of the crash, though I’ve been told I mentioned pains in my chest, back, and left leg, and talked freely with the medical personnel in the Navy ambulance en route to St. John’s Hospital in nearby Oxnard. I was definitely in a state of shock, and I was delirious for three or four days.

In his words, “I was alive — but barely.” His right leg had been amputated below the knee, and his left leg was shattered; he also suffered back injuries, broken ribs, and various cuts and bruises. During this time, Ellis was so sick he was unaware he had lost his right leg for a week until he “peeked under [the bed sheet] for a look.” His reaction was not one of despair but relief. “I can report truthfully that my only reaction was, ‘I’ll be darned, it’s gone!’ I was the luckiest guy in the world just to be alive, and I knew it. A leg seemed a small price to pay for survival, and I had no doubt about staying alive, either.”

While Ellis was removed from the hospital’s critical list, his physical problems weren’t entirely resolved. His left leg had become infected, causing Ellis pain, fever, and weight loss; his fit 160-pound frame dropped below 100. It was clear his left leg had to be amputated for him to survive, and on September 14, 1962, it was. Again, Ellis’ reaction was one of relief. Almost immediately after what most men — especially highly-motivated naval aviators — would view as an impossible setback, he “started agitating for some artificial legs…I had to make a first step toward resuming my naval career, and I had to have feet to do it on!” By December, he was already being fitted for his first set of artificial legs. According to Colin Burgess’ book Shattered Dreams: The Lost and Canceled Space Missions, the legs were carved out of willow.

Fast-forward a year, and Ellis had nearly completely regained the mobility he had lost due to his near-fatal accident. Shattered Dreams recounted how Ellis undertook an intensive physical training regimen, with being returned to full flight status as his goal: “…[H]e took up swimming, underwent a tough water survival test, ran obstacle courses, scaled ropes, and even made a demonstration parachute jump from 2,500 feet with the San Diego Sky Divers.” Another naval aviator, Jack Ferrell, met Ellis when he was assigned to VRF-32. Ferrell reported in Shattered Dreams, “First day that I checked into the squadron, Frank came up to me and introduced himself. He said, ‘My name is Frank Ellis, and I would like to welcome you to VRF-32. I lost my legs in an aircraft crash a few months ago.’ Then he turned and walked off without a limp. I said to myself he must have said he had broken his legs.” Ferrell only later heard the entire story of Ellis’ plight and recovery.

While Ellis had been reassigned to a squadron, he was only granted temporary flight status in Service Group 3, which meant he could only fly dual-control aircraft accompanied by another qualified pilot. This was not what Ellis wanted, and he fought to restore his status to Service Group 1 (unassisted solo flying).

It almost goes without writing that during the 1960s, respectful language and attitudes toward people with disabilities were very much absent. People with intellectual disabilities, for example, were referred to as “retarded” and “mongoloids” in medical textbooks. Someone like Ellis, on the other hand, was referred to as “crippled,” “handicapped,” and “stricken.” Disability-friendly language had not yet entered the public lexicon. Ellis found that despite his demonstrated ability to do the same things he did before his accident, his fight to have his flight status restored would be an uphill battle.

He also hadn’t given up on another goal — he was determined to become a NASA astronaut, like many naval aviators of that period.

An episode of the 1964 television show Survival! profiled Frank Ellis. Video credit: Periscope Film

The Fight to Fly

Ellis was required to undergo a series of intense tests by the U.S. Navy to verify his fitness to fly. In short, despite positive evaluations, he was kept in Service Group 3. Disappointed and understandably angry — after all, nothing untoward had revealed itself during testing — he accepted admittance to the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, as a (sort of) consolation prize. There he studied aeronautical engineering and decided — against all odds — to apply to NASA’s next astronaut class, which would be Group 5. After all, the application stated nothing about amputee status.

When the media learned about Ellis and his quest to become an astronaut, he became a minor celebrity. He even joked in an interview about his diminished height without legs making him uniquely qualified to fly in space: “Maybe NASA has a small capsule just big enough for the Navy’s shortest pilot…I could leave my legs behind on the launching pad.” Ellis was also subjected to headlines such as “Legless U.S. Flier Wants Space Job.” That’s not a grotesque joke — this was an actual headline about him within the pages of October 30, 1965’s The Spokesman-Review.

During this time, Ellis flew to the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas, to plead his case. However, NASA would only accept him as a candidate if he could be returned to Service Group 1. Thus, Ellis’ attempt to fly for NASA ended before it could leave the ground. It bears mentioning that this astronaut group, announced in April 1966, also did not have any African-American, Asian-American, or women candidates. The first diverse group of NASA astronauts wasn’t revealed until 1978.

By 1968, a final attempt to be restored to Service Group 1 was met with rejection, and he retired from the Navy on October 31 that year at the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Ellis went on to live a rewarding life, working in the civilian world as a financial planner and in real estate; he and his wife of sixty years, Christine, had four children and six grandchildren. The man who was supposed to die due to his injuries in 1962 but instead confidently walked out of his circumstances died at 83 on December 27, 2016, having enjoyed a rich, fulfilling life.

While Ellis may not have been accepted to 1966’s astronaut group, his presence left resonances. In Shattered Dreams, Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden — who was accepted into 1966’s astronaut group — acknowledged, “There is lots of evidence that a person could function well [in space] with no legs. It could be an advantage for certain operations.” Famed NASA nurse Dee O’Hara confirmed, “There is no question being an amputee would not be a problem in space. You don’t really need your legs except to push off from the walls and propel yourself.” O’Hara also admitted that during that era, “[T]he term ‘outside the box’ wasn’t part of the NASA lexicon.”

At present, people with disabilities regularly undertake microgravity research on “zero-g” parabolic flights. It is now realized that limb differences present no hindrances in spaceflight, as Hayley Arceneaux successfully flew aboard 2021’s Inspiration4 spaceflight with an internal leg prosthetic (Arceneaux is a bone cancer survivor). Of course, McFall’s selection is also a significant milestone.

How did Ellis survive and thrive after sustaining injuries that could have physically — and mentally — destroyed him? In No Man Walks Alone, he discussed his faith frequently — not just his belief in a higher being, but his conviction that he would go on to persevere and inspire others:

If I am to be of any significant value to the “handicapped,” that value will come from the fact that I’m still fighting for acceptance. Publicity attends this effort, and as I progress as a pilot (as I am positive I will — in the Navy or out of it), even persons with unrelated problems will hear of my progress and be encouraged, as verified by the many cards and letters already received.

That’s worth being saved for.


Thanks to Francis French for aiding with the research for this piece.

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[1] Mercury 7 NASA astronaut Deke Slayton was missing his left ring finger, which he lost in a childhood farming accident. This did not disqualify him from serving in the U.S. Air Force and NASA; he eventually flew into space during 1975’s Apollo Soyuz Test Project mission.



Emily Carney
The Making of an Ex-Nuke

Space historian and podcaster. Space Hipster. Named one of the Top Ten Space Influencers by the National Space Society. Co-host of Space and Things podcast.