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.

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  • David T

    That’s a fantastic piece about a terribly sad event.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Wow, I’ve done a moderately good job staying undercover. With all of the spam, big data (invasion of privacy) and phishing attacks, many small business people hide behind Web contact pages and don’t post any phone numbers on their web site so we aren’t deluged with a constant flow of junk mail. This is something of a problem for a photojournalist wanting to license their work.

    My journalistic work to date has been with magazines and features in newspapers where there are usually long lead times. In the case of the SpaceShipTwo accident, the lead time was 5 minutes ago. I started working the phone while we were standing next to the wreckage site where the copilot, Mike Alsbury, came to rest. There are only 3 or 4 pictures from that location that I will ever release. The rest of them are too…. it was a tough thing to see.

    My first call was to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA/AST) person that oversees the space companies in Southern California. I worked with her very closely when I was with Masten Space Systems and felt giving her a heads up that I had pictures and was a witness in a good location was the proper first move. My second call was to the NBC science reporter Alan Boyle whom I had just met a couple of weeks prior. Thirdly, I was able to find a number for the Associated Press news wire company as the contact in my phone, I learned later, left the company to start a family. Those last two calls lit the fuse.

    Since there was no way to reach the largest piece of wreckage that I had photographed coming down without driving straight through the current site or traveling an hour or more since the most direct road was closed due to repairs and impassible, I made the decision to get back to my home office as quickly as possible and start getting the images from the camera. I didn’t even think to go to the local airport to find a plane for rent to get some aerial photos of the wreckage even though I do aerial photos from time to time. I guess I have a problem thinking three dimensionally when under stress.

    No sooner than banging through the door at home sending the cat racing off to hide under the bed, my phone started ringing and beeping continuously. For the next 36 hours I was on the phone or responding to emails while simultaneously creating photo galleries to send to the Copyright Office for registration and to send to all of the news agencies clamoring for a look at what I was able to capture. I then had to create additional galleries of high resolution photos according to what they wanted to license.

    I alway hate to be terse when replying to people like Alex shows above. Thankfully he realized that I was trying to make some sort of reply as fast as I possibly could and convey that the stress meter was pegged in the red zone. Thanks for picking up on that and understanding that I wasn’t being rude, Alex.

    Maybe having to make people work to find me was not such a bad thing. There was no possibility of handling any more phone calls. I was fighting to answer enough calls to maintain some capacity on the wee voice mail allocation provided with my cell service. As I write this it’s full again and I’ll be up late copying down Names, titles and numbers of producers, writers and news wire service managers all wanting to know why I haven’t submitted all of the stinking paperwork yet. I’ll get to it! I want to get paid.

    The caller ID from Alex showed something like “Call 1” since it was an international call. If I had POTS (plain old telephone service) at the house, I would see proper Caller ID. I guess since the cell companies can’t charge extra for CID, they aren’t going to put much work into it. I knew that any calls I received that didn’t display a name from my address book were going to be inquiries about my photos, so I just answered as many as I could. Any telemarketers would be hung up on immediately, as usual.

    A tip for bloggers and media companies that don’t have a urgent need for photos, interviews or consultation to meet an air time or printing deadline is to wait a day or two to send an email or make a call. The economics of photojournalism are that in a case like this, the photos are in very high demand and the price is sky high (yes, an unplanned pun). As the days pass, the price comes down and you may even be in with a chance at photos that weren’t picked up yet or haven’t even been sampled out. I have some good ones held back especially for another journalist as a thank you for leads on other stuff in the past. My business email was hit so hard that it and another one of my domains were only coughing up messages intermittently. I have no idea if anything was lost. Also subscribe to AP or Reuters. They are the leaders in news media and if you use current or stock images on a regular basis, it’s a pretty good deal and you’re all legal. Don’t “borrow” images from the web. My IP attorney expects to be spending the Christmas holidays in Europe this winter paid for from the infringements we have seen thus far. No joke. She may even be able to buy a new car when she gets back.

    I think I may have been partially saved by the fact that the contact form on my web sites send a duplicate to my Gmail account. Since Gmail goes through Google and not my web host’s system, there is an improved chance of it getting to me. I also see the message twice.

    I actually had somebody start their email to me “I hope this finds you well” on one inquiry. No!, it bloody well didn’t. Bad things happened to people I know and I was shaking from 10:07:33 Friday morning until mid-morning Sunday.

    I’m not divulging my Twitter name. That account gets used mostly to know when a new episode of Robert Llewellyn’s “Fully Charged” is posted on YouTube, The new season of “The Infinite Monkey Cage” with Prof. Brian Cox and Robin Ince starts, There’s something good coming on Bang Goes the Theory (I’m in an episode from season one with Dallas Campbell) and, of course, The Pythons. It’s always fun if Eric Idle tweets back on a reply I make to one of his posts.

    Social media is not what most people think it is. Read the legal language fine print of what you actually agreed to when you signed up not the simplified summary they have provided. It’s small, dense, the sentences run on forever and the grammar is peculiar. It’s written precisely in that manner to keep you from spending the time to read all of it and if you do, from being able to make any sense of it without reading it again and again. Spend your time crafting your own web site where you control all of the content and are not granting a large company permission to do what they will with the content you post. RTFM. /rant

    Alex, you missed a way to find me that I’ll send you by email. I’ll leave it as an exercise for everybody else to find out. You still won’t have the address of my home. I think that only the DMV has that and my PO box is what is printed on my license.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Another tip, unless there is no alternative, use email or voice before texting somebody blind. I have a vintage Nokia flip phone with text blocked as I was getting spam texts (many from AT&T themselves trying to get me to upgrade every week). It’s uncommon to get a bounced text notification if your message didn’t go through. This could mean that you will never get a reply.

    I had one person tell me in a voice mail message that they were texting me some information. Obviously I didn’t get it. Since she was in the UK and didn’t also leave a phone number (No Caller ID), I couldn’t call back. It would have taken me a whole bunch of time and money in international calling to try and locate her by her name and that she said she was calling from the BBC.