NORAD tracks Santa like a ballistic missile

Published 11:09 am Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nearly 60 years ago during the height of the Cold War a phone began to ring that could only signal the worst.

The phone was inside the office of U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations at CONAD, the Continental Air Defense Command. It was one of the top-secret lines inside CONAD that only rang in a crisis.

Shoup must have expected to hear a voice on the other end barking out orders, but instead heard a little girl’s voice asking, “Is this Santa Claus?”

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Shoup’s daughter in a 2009 interview said her dad barked back into the phone demanding to know was was calling.
Pretty soon the little girl was crying and this time asked, “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?”

“Col. Shoup decided to make this little girl’s night and told her that he would check his official radars to see where Santa was as he made his yuletide journey across the globe,” said U.S. Air Force Sgt. Chuck Marsh.

The phone rang many more times that night as CONAD’s phone number had been printed in a Sears & Roebuck ad in the Colorado Springs newspaper by mistake.

So on that night in 1955, a tradition was born, one that continues today with CONAD’s successor NORAD, the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command.

For 23 hours on Christmas Eve 1,250 volunteers work two-hour shifts to answer the 117,370 phone calls that come through the operations center. Marsh said the operations center is “a cross between NASA’s Houston control center and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, only they are spreading a lot more cheer.”

The volunteers are comprised of Canadian and U.S. service members, Department of Defense employees and members of the community.

Today NORAD utilizes social media as well as the Internet and old-fashioned telephone calls to deliver Santa’s whereabouts.

“During the time the operations center is active more than 20.5 million unique visitors from 234 countries will visit the website, its Facebook page will receive 1.5 million likes, Twitter will see 146,000 followers, 9,600 emails will be answered and 41,700 people will become fans on Google Plus,” Marsh said.

Marsh said callers inquire if they are on the naughty or nice list and just about anything you can imagine.

“A little boy called in to find out if he was on the naughty or nice list, and then he wanted NORAD to let Santa know that whatever presents he had for his sister to deliver them to him,” Marsh said.

Marsh told the little boy that Santa is the person that maintains the list and it’s not up to them.

NORAD’s efforts to track Santa are the DOD’s largest community outreach program. Marsh said the volunteers have such a good time spreading Christmas cheer that they have a hard time leaving the operations center when their two-hour shift ends.