It's not every day that you're given the opportunity to play in the desert for work — let alone launch code into space! This year, as part of SIGNAL, Twilio's user conference, and in celebration of the launch of TwilioQuest 3.2, I was able to put aside my daily duties of writing documentation and tutorials to take part in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: giving SIGNAL attendees the ability to run their code in the stratosphere.
Twilio collaborated with Night Crew Labs (NCL) to plan the flight and design the payload of the high-altitude, helium balloon. The balloon itself was equipped with a parachute, a radar reflector to prevent aircraft collisions, and a styrofoam box holding GoPros, an Atomos Shinobi V 7” Professional Monitor, and a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.
Day Two of SIGNAL was launch day. I left my Las Vegas hotel at 4:30 AM and drove southwest into the desert. Our crew of five Twilio employees, four NCL scientists, two cars, a pickup truck, and an adventure van named Megan met up on some Bureau of Land Management land just off of Joshua Tree Highway near Searchlight, Nevada.
As the sun rose over the desert, NCL inflated the balloon and prepared the payload. On camera, I interviewed Bryan Chan, the CEO of NCL. Our audio equipment was unfortunately not up to the task, so not much of that footage made it to our audience. We were still able to pull together some footage of the launch site, which you can check out here.
By about 7:30 in the morning, the balloon was inflated, the Raspberry Pi and monitor were tested, the payload was taped closed and attached to the balloon with a paracord. It was time to launch. We counted down and let the balloon go. Talon 1 was launched!
As the balloon was ascending to 94,000 feet and travelling east, an onboard GoPro recorded the code submissions on the monitor with a view of Earth in the background. Our plan was to recover the balloon (fingers crossed) and return the video to each person who submitted code to our Talon 1 Repository.
The submissions ranged from funny to promotional to heartwarming. One submission had a series of photos of a dog going to space in a spacesuit. A few submissions promoted businesses by showing their owners or their logos. We even teamed up with Product Hunt to send their . Others included thank yous to friends, photos of family members and pets, and memorials for loved ones.
As the balloon flies, the distance from launch to landing was about 20 miles. But that 20 miles included two mountain ranges and the Colorado River, making our drive to the recovery zone over 100 miles. During the drive, we were able to track the balloon’s altitude and position thanks to a satellite link on the payload. The balloon landed, and it appeared to be about three-fourths of a mile from a road. We parked the cars and started hiking up the sandhills.
We kept cresting hills, seeing no sign of the parachute, saying “it’s probably over the next ridge”, wash, rinse, repeat. Suddenly, the sandhills ended and we realized that we were on the edge of a mountain range, 3,000 feet above the Colorado River valley below. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful, but no sign of the parachute or the payload.
Thanks to Dr. Ashish Goel from the NCL team we were able to retrieve the payload. He not only has a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics, he’s also an accomplished mountaineer. He climbed down into the steep, rocky gully to look for the payload. We couldn’t see him in the canyon, but he yelled that he spotted the parachute. A while later, he found the payload. He said the terrain was dangerous, which meant that it was absolutely not safe for anyone else to assist.
After what seems like a long while, we see him walking up the slope with the Talon 1 styrofoam box. Everything was intact, everything worked as expected. As soon as we had Talon 1 in hand, it was a rush to get back to the cars, gather the SD cards from the GoPros, and get back to civilization to share our footage with the Twilio community before SIGNAL ended.
The mission was certainly a bit more exciting and challenging than I thought it would be, but Night Crew Labs and the amazing Twilio employees who so thoroughly planned and executed this adventure were a dream to work with. I’m so grateful that I got to take part in giving such a unique gift to our developer community, and I hope that the TwilioQuest Space Program is a permanent feature of the Twilio community in the future.