Shaken reporter chronicling Virgin accuses company of complicity in pilot’s death

At least one pilot was killed and another seriously injured when Virgin Galactic’s experimental orbital passenger plane reportedly exploded during a test flight over California on Friday. The details of the incident were sketchy when Joël Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter and author chronicling the evolution of Virgin’s foray into private spaceflight, appeared on CNN to offer her thoughts. Overcome with emotion over the loss of someone she described as her friend, Brenner asserted that the private space program was never ready for prime time and that the company was negligent in allowing it to go forward.

“I have been working to share the story of SpaceShipOne, in book form, with the world,” Brenner began. She added that the contacts she developed while researching that book allowed her to follow the development of SpaceShipTwo, the plane which failed during a test flight on Friday, closely.

“The enthusiasm that has been shown outwardly by Virgin Galactic and by Sir Richard [Branson] does not match at all with the technology behind the scenes,” Brenner continued. “There is a big gap there and has been for quite some time.”

“This engine that exploded today, even if they had had a successful flight and even if they had not stolen my friend’s life, okay,” she continued, her voice cracking with emotion, “they would not have ever gotten anywhere near space with this engine.”

“So, I am here to say that they took this pilot’s life, and this engine still would not have gotten customers to space,” Brenner added. “And I am sure that Virgin Galactic is going to be very unhappy with me for telling the truth, but it is time the truth be told.”

Before leaving the Post, Brenner had been a business reporter for the flagship Beltway publication for over two decades. She is the author of the 1999 book The Emperors Of Chocolate: Inside The Secret World Of Hershey And Mars.

Clearly, Brenner was rattled when she gave this interview over what she suspected was the loss of someone she knew well. Her state may have contributed to her decision to essentially accuse Virgin of complicity in the death of their pilot. Nevertheless, this is a serious charge and, given her sources within the company, one which Brenner is uniquely positioned to make.

One thing is certain: either Virgin or Brenner are going to have a trying time in the coming weeks.

An earlier version of this post identified New Mexico as the site of this accident. The title has been updated since this post’s original publication.