Winnsboro native John Leonard Fagan may downplay his role in history. After all, he will tell you, all he did was make a delivery — pick up something here, drop it off there. Simple as that.
But what Fagan delivered was a significant piece of History, an artifact that would later end up in The Smithsonian as a silent, though slightly charred, testament to America’s entry into the Space Age.
On the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn sat bolted inside a Mercury capsule atop an Atlas LV-3B rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. After several delays, Glenn and his capsule, christened Friendship 7, blasted into the atmosphere. A short time later, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, completing a total of three orbits during his nearly five-hour flight.
The importance of this moment in American history cannot be overstated. These were the Cold War years, and America’s geopolitical adversary, the Soviet Union, had already shot two men into orbit The first, Yuri Gagarin, launched aboard the Vostok-1 on April 12, 1961. America was losing the Space Race. With John Glenn’s feat, America was now nipping at the Soviets’ heels.
When Glenn and Friendship 7 splashed down that afternoon, he was surprisingly 40 miles off course. NASA scientists had not taken into account spacecraft weight loss due to use of on-board consumables, and Glenn floated idly in the Atlantic, just to the northeast of the Dominican Republic. A U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Randolph, was assigned to pluck Glenn and the capsule out of the sea, but the off-course landing had put Glenn within 6 miles of a Navy destroyer, the USS Noa. The Noa pulled alongside the capsule and hoisted it on deck. Glenn later blew the hatch and climbed out. “It was hot in there,” Glenn reportedly said.
The problem now for the Noa was what to do with the capsule. Friendship 7 was scheduled to be delivered to Grand Turk island, southeast of the Bahamas, but the Noa was not equipped with a vessel able to haul the capsule to the dock.
Enter John Leonard Fagan, a then 24-year-old Petty Officer from Winnsboro, stationed, it so happened, aboard the Randolph.
“I took a 40-foot motor launch from the Randolph over to the Noa,” Fagan said recently. “I picked up the capsule and took it to the dock on Grand Turk Island. The capsule looked to be in pretty good shape. Once they had lifted the capsule out of my boat, I turned around and headed back.”
And just like that, Fagan, a master of understatement, humbly played his role in the birth of the American Space Age.
Born in July of 1938 in Winnsboro to Leonard H. and Ethel May Pearson Fagan, Fagan was raised on Fagan Road in South Winnsboro. At age 16, he dropped out of school and worked construction jobs in Columbia. He was later employed by the U.S. Rubber Co. at Winnsboro Mills. At age 20, he was laid off and was playing pinball at a local grocery when a Navy recruiter showed up. For the better part of the next 20 years, Fagan would spend his life at sea.
“I enjoyed the travel,” Fagan said. “I spent a year and a half in the Mediterranean. It was great.”
Fagan retired from the Navy in 1978, worked for a coal mining company in Virginia, went to college and eventually retired from the Berkeley County School District. He and his wife Shirley still live in Virginia, where he remains forever linked to one of America’s finest moments.