Finding Ken Brown & his photos of Virgin Galactic test flight crash

Virgin Galactic test flight crash
Ken Brown’s images of the moment the Virgin Galactic test flight went disastrously wrong, which he licenced to AP, used here for reference only, taken from BBC News report
These images tell the story of how the Virgin Galactic test flight crash was seen by an eyewitness, Ken Brown.

This is an account of how I found him and got him on to BBC News Channel by 21:15 GMT, then BBC Radio 5 live and BBC World TV.

Which meant there was a hunt request for eyewitnesses put my way.

So, scouring twitter I can find Doug Messier tweeting from @spacecom

I check how his tweets are geo-locating using one of the sites we use (Geofeedia), which puts him at the Mojave Space Port.

So I made a fairly standard approach that every news org does now in reply to one of his tweets

Doug was undoubtedly getting swapped with requests as the only visible eyewitness. You can see almost every big news company is contacting him in his @ replies

Then going through his timeline, saw he mentioned Ken in telling Virgin Galactic about what they witnessed:

So I ran a twitter search for “Ken Brown” (with quotes)”ken%20brown” to see if he had a twitter account.

That turned up a very old tweet which had a Ken Brown working for Masten

Now industries like aerospace tend to be quite small and committed communities, so how many Ken Browns working for Masten are there?

In somewhere like Mojave it’s also going to be quite a small community of people who are really into space travel stuff. And Doug Messier had tweeted this:

So we’re looking for a Ken Brown (or similar) who is a professional photographer and worked for Masten. Google search, first result: Google search Ken+Brown+Masten

Linkedin profile for a Kenneth Brown, who is a professional photographer and worked for Masten

Now there’s more than one or two Ken or Kenneth Brown Photography companies out there. So gave up that route. Instead, his most recent venture is “Mojave Locations”. Google search with quotes, fourth result:

Mojave Locations site, now look for a Contact or similar page. So there’s this form

You think everything comes through social? Well it sometimes does, but if you’re running a business, you’re going to have the email you use most frequently plugged into your contact form, right?

So I filled out the form:

“Hi Ken,

I work with BBC News and I understand you witnesses the crash of the Virgin Galactic flight today.

Would you be willing to speak to BBC News about what you saw?

If so could you email me at or my team on with the best number to contact you on.

Alternatively you can call us on [our office number]

Kind regards,

Alex Murray, BBC News”

(Yes, screamer of a typo. I’ve only just noticed it too)

And a bit later I got this reply to my work email:

“Just processing pictures at the moment and getting the registration done.

Can be available for interview.


Now an important thing to remember is always be human first. Having seen Doug’s tweets and bearing in mind what they had witnessed, I replied:

“Thanks for getting in touch so quickly. I hope you’ve not been too traumatised by what you witnessed.

Yes, we’d love to speak to you. What’s the best number to call you on? I’ll give you a call to explain what we’d like to ask you and who you’d be speaking to on air.

Would you be willing to share any of your images with BBC News?”

Next email back from Ken was a “Yes to all” with his phone number, indicating that we would have to pay for licencing photos and a further one with twenty or so samples, including the pictures you will have seen everywhere which appear at the top of this post.

I phoned Ken but it went to voicemail. I left a voicemail saying I would call him back in five or ten minutes. When you’re dialling from a strange number, leave a voicemail otherwise it just looks weird.

Top tip: make sure you’ve done everything to make your caller ID visible, not withheld – withheld numbers are always cold-calling idiots/spam.

Ever tried to watch a clock for five minutes? It’s a loooooooooong time.

When I phoned again, I got through to Ken.

I got him to talk me through what he witnessed, where he was at the time (Jawbone rangers’ station) and discussed his photos with him. He told me the sort of detail that I could match to the samples and which confirmed for me everything was genuine.

He told me he was talking to AP about his pictures. The BBC has an agreement with AP and I don’t get a company cheque book, so I was in no position to offer him better. So I left that to our picture desk to pursue.

He also gave me Doug’s number. At this point my best option was to pass this all on to our team at the scene to follow up. And that’s where I step out of this story.

Ken was such a calm clear witness and hearing him on air made me quite emotional as he gave such a strong account:

“Everything seemed to be going normally when they came overhead.

“They released the space craft, lit the engine. And it’s a little difficult to tell how long it was but it burned for a time, and then just exploded.

“It was quite horrendous.”

Listen to his full account on BBC News

Thank you Ken, for being there and being willing to speak to BBC News.