Sixty years ago Wednesday today, a shiny metal ball weighing 184 pounds was hurled into space. It had always been a matter of when, not if, humans would launch something into orbit. The surprise to many Americans was that it was the Soviet Union that got there first. The orb was called Sputnik, Russian for "fellow traveler of Earth."

In the official announcement of their feat, the Soviets proclaimed that "artificial Earth satellites will pave the way for space travel and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labor of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man's dreams into reality."

For many in Washington, the reality was more nightmare than dream. All Sputnik could do was beep, but who knew what later satellites would be capable of? Spying on us? Dropping nuclear bombs?

And so, the mood in Washington was grim, with lots of finger-pointing among politicians, military leaders and scientists. Sputnik, some said, was a second Pearl Harbor in the way it caught America unawares.

In a special Outlook section devoted to the Russian achievement, The Washington Post's Chalmers M. Roberts wrote, "That beep-beep meant that the United States could no longer proclaim the supremacy of its industrial machine or of the capitalist free system of economics — could no longer proclaim it, that is, without the most serious doubts and challenges from many men in many lands."

Especially galling: When Moscow Radio noted the times that Sputnik would be passing over various cities — useful information for amateur skywatchers — it tweaked the United States by including Little Rock, where a bitter school integration fight was underway.

Sputnik's place in the heavens inspired religious figures to sermonize. The Sunday after the launch, the sermon at the Union Methodist Church on 20th Street NW was "God and the Russian Satellite." At the College Park Unitarian Church, it was "Immaturity About a Baby Moon."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Clough of Grace Baptist Church titled his sermon "The Russian Satellite and Prophecy." The pastor used biblical quotations to back up his belief that the satellite meant Christ would come again, and soon.

"Don't be surprised, my friends, if He comes today," Clough said.

(As it happened, He did not.)

While some Washingtonians pondered Sputnik's effect on the soul, others focused on its effect on the wallet. Merchants capitalized on satellite mania.

MGM started advertising its Robby the Robot movie "The Invisible Boy" — showing at the Capitol Theatre downtown — as "hot from the satellite headlines!!!"

Irving's sporting goods at 10th and E streets NW advertised powerful binoculars that were "ideal for all sports, birdwatching, satellite watching and other activities!" They were on sale for half-price: $12.49.

Some satellite wagon-jumping seemed a bit forced. The Storm Sash Discount Co. on S Street NW advertised storm and screen windows for $8.88 each, installation included. They called this "the new satellite combination."

In their ad, the developers of the Rock Creek Hills development noted that "launching a satellite is a simple matter in comparison to finding a brick rambler so lovely and charming as we have here." What they had here — in Kensington, Md. — was a three-bedroom, two-bath home, with screened porch and two-car garage, for $42,500.

Take that, Commies.

Jones, Kreeger & Hewitt, a D.C. investment firm, invited readers of The Post to write in for a free brochure listing which U.S. companies were engaged in missile projects. Why? "Now that the Russians have successfully launched an earth satellite ahead of the U.S., we will undoubtedly accelerate our entire missile program."

In other words, there was money to be made.

Not so fast, urged Bache & Co., another brokerage: "We believe investors should be cautious in this speculative field . . . should constantly reappraise their aircraft-missile stocks they hold." They were happy to offer advice from their offices in the Hotel Washington.

The first confirmed Washington-area sighting of Sputnik — or of the spent rocket stage that had launched it — was Oct. 12 by G.R. Wright of Piping Rock Road in Colesville, Md. The Weather Bureau scientist looked at it through an eight-power field telescope.

The Indian ambassador, G.L. Mehta, saw it from the embassy garden at 2700 Macomb St. NW. Robert Smith, a ninth-grader at the District's Alice Deal Junior High, saw it on his Post delivery route.

Ensign Roy A. Norman tried to catch a glimpse from a Safeway parking lot in Congress Heights but was stopped by police. "I was carrying a telescope and it might have looked like a gun," he told The Post.

Area teachers noted that students had become obsessed with Sputnik, though sometimes in unexpected ways. A Post reporter witnessed a 6-year-old muttering "Sputnik!" after he'd stubbed his toe. A new profanity had entered the lexicon.

On Oct. 26, Sputnik's radio signal went silent. Its battery was dead. On Jan. 4, 1958, it fell to Earth. The artificial moon had circled our planet 1,440 times.

Plenty of satellites would follow — men and women, too — but Sputnik would always be the first.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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