‘Twas Christmas eve 1955 when a misprinted Sears Roebuck & Co. newspaper ad directed kids to a Soviet alert hotline instead of Santa’s direct dial. The top secret hotline that was used only in national emergencies to alert the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) if the USSR attacked. Wrong red phone!
On the receiving end, U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, CONAD’s director of operations, grabbed the red emergency phone and braced for an imminent attack. Instead, a little 6 year-old boy’s voice trembled over the phone, “Are you really Santa Claus?” Shoup, thinking it was a prank, barked, “Would you repeat that?” The little voice started to cry, then hesitantly asked, “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?”
Soon the phone began ringing off the hook with kids wanting to gab with Santa. Col. Shoup played along. He even turned his team of Cold War-era radar operators into North Pole elves—they scanned monitors for indications of Santa on the move. And that’s how the U.S. Government got into the business of Santa tracking.
Today, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD, CONAD’s successor) is a bi-national U.S. and Canadian organization tasked with aerospace warning and control. As a frontline in homeland defense, its slogan is “Deter, Detect, Defend.” But its most famous and favorite mission is watching the winter skies for the “big red one,” much as it has done since Col. Shoup answered the phone over 60 years ago.
“Guarding What You Value Most: North American Aerospace Defense Command Celebrating 50 Years,” available thru GPO, touches upon how NORAD triangulates Kris Kringle’s course. The publication proudly states that “using the same technology used to perform their day-to-day mission— satellites, high-powered radars and jet fighters— NORAD tracks Santa Claus as he makes his Yuletide journey around the world.”
NORAD’s sleigh of different high-tech systems is used to read Rudolph’s infrared nose signature, capture high-speed video around the globe, and provide Santa and his reindeer with a NORAD fighter pilot escort. Fun fact to impress people at your holiday party: satellites and radar once clocked Santa’s flying delivery cart at 100 times faster than the Japanese bullet train.
Santa positioning updates were originally delivered over the radio and through the Santa Tracking hotline. In 1997, the operation leapt onto the internet. A few years ago, NORAD teamed up with tech companies to release a set of free apps. If you download the tracking app, you can receive notifications of the Santa’s globetrotting whereabouts.
Want to track jolly St. Nick and his sleigh-pullers on Christmas Eve? Visit NORAD’s multilingual Santa site. It’s soundtracked with some pretty groovy holiday music, too. And while clicking around, do visit GPO’s Online Bookstore and check out that NORAD history publication there waiting for you. Unlike Santa, it requires no high-tech tracking.
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About the author: Blogger contributor Chelsea Milko is a Public Relations Specialist in GPO’s Public Relations Office.