06/04/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Astronauts I Almost Met -- Attending the 2012 International Space Development Conference

I've mentioned a few times before that when it comes to cool space events, I have a remarkable knack for being where they aren't. My home in New York just isn't that close to Florida... or Texas... or California... or Russia... or any of those far-off spots solar eclipses always seem to be visible from. (Seriously, what's up with eclipses and major population centers, the 1990 Mexico City one excepted?) And when the Space Shuttle Enterprise DID arrive in New York City back in April, I was away at college in Boston!

However, last weekend, something very unusual happened -- I found myself not only in the right place at the right time, but in a better position than several of my friends. That was because the National Space Society (NSS) was holding its 2012 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) right here in Washington, D.C., just a week after I'd moved in for my Congressional internship.

All I had to do to get to the conference was take a short subway ride to the Metro Center and take the very convenient escalators from the station into the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel, which was literally on top of the station. It wasn't so easy for my friends in BU SEDS (Boston University Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) who were still in Boston -- they had to cram into a van and drive down.

We all ended up missing the first day of the conference, Thursday, May 24th -- them because they were getting to D.C., me because I was taking part in orientation events with the other students from BU's D.C. summer program. But my friends were able to watch SpaceX's Dragon capsule dock to the International Space Station on Friday morning at the conference, while I was on a walking tour of the Adams Morgan neighborhood with the summer program group. (As nice as lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl was, I'll probably regret missing the docking forever.) Fortunately, I have a lot of nice online friends who were able to show me the video and screenshots they'd captured, and once I'd finished looking at those, I headed over to the Hyatt to meet with BU SEDS.

Several lectures were already in progress when I arrived, so I decided to take the time to look at everything else. In one exhibition hall, students from all over the world who had won the NASA-NSS Space Settlement Design Contest were presenting their ideas for future space habitats. I spoke to groups from Romania, India and the Czech Republic about their designs.

Elsewhere in the hall, a local NSS chapter had a table about their activities, with a cool display comparing the weights of a ten-pound (4.53 kg) brick on Earth, the moon, and Mars. At another table, a representative from the space-focused publishing company Apogee Books was displaying some of the company's newest books. I noticed one man looking at their edition of Edison's Conquest of Mars, which I'd read last summer.

"Read it. It's epic." I advised him.

Another table had general space memorabilia for sale, and I was lucky enough to pick up their last Commercial Crew Program pin of the day -- since the SpaceX success that morning, the manager said they'd been selling like hotcakes. (It's a lovely pin design, something I like to think Carol Danvers would wear.)

And at the end of the row of tables, I found a very familiar face -- Dr. Ryan Kobrick, Executive Director of Yuri's Night. The Yuri's Night team was sharing their area with a group from ThinkGeek, the company behind many of my favorite science shirts. I chatted with them before heading off to meet with my friends as the lectures got out. We didn't talk for long, though, because we had to hurry off to change for the Governors' Diner and Gala at the National Air and Space Museum that night. Walking from the hotel to the museum with my friends was a lot of fun as we talked about what we'd seen and done so far.

We had some time to look around at the museum before the speeches started, and we spent most of it in the America By Air gallery, laughing as we saw how different air travel had been in the past. (We got a real chuckle out of one photo of a stewardess from the '70s wearing a strange-looking, bubble-shaped "space helmet".)

When the call came, we found seats in the Milestones of Flight gallery to watch the keynote speech by NSS Chairman of the Board of Governors Hugh Downs, as well as a video of the presentation of the society's Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award to Dr. Stephen Hawking earlier in the year. And right there in the museum, awards for "Historic Space Achievement" were presented to Mercury astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. Unfortunately, just like last year, I was unable to get a clear photo of Senator Glenn's face -- he sure moves pretty fast for a guy who's 90!

The next day, Saturday the 26th, my friends came by in their van to pick me up so that we could all visit the Air and Space Museum's other location, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. I'd never been there before, as it's hard to get to from D.C. proper without a car, so I was very excited. On the way to the museum, I took advantage of my experience living in D.C. to play tour guide, pointing out various historic places as we drove by.

After about an hour of driving, we saw the building up ahead.

"That's it!" One of my friends said.

"Oh, is that the aerodrome?" Another said, in a funny old-fashioned sort of voice that made us laugh.

We parked and jumped out to take photos of the stunning "Ascent" statue outside of the museum entrance. As soon as we got inside, we all ran to see the star attraction of the Aviation Hangar that was visible right inside -- a real SR-71 Blackbird jet!

And just behind it, visible through the entrance to the Space Hangar... there she was, the museum's newest addition -- the Space Shuttle Discovery. I stood there, awestruck. The last time I'd seen Discovery she'd been so far away, a dot of light at the end of a long trail of smoke, launching for the final time. I'd never seen her like this, right there, mere feet from my face. If the barriers hadn't been there, I could have reached out and touched the black tiles that had been scorched on her many trips through the atmosphere.

It was natural that Discovery would have gone to the Smithsonian, being the oldest and most-used surviving space shuttle. I'd always thought of her as the big sister of the fleet, the stoic one, who bravely returned to space after each accident to make sure it was safe for her younger siblings. Now, with them safely in their new homes in Florida and California, I could imagine her sighing with relief and settling in to enjoy her own retirement here, under the museum's loving care.

"Hey," I whispered, looking up at the shuttle "It's nice to see you again."

(Appropriately enough, this article's title is a reference to an essay called "Kings and Queens I Almost Met" in the 1977 book The Smithsonian Experience.)