Red Menace: Why NORAD Tracks Santa

Presumably in case he goes rogue, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has been able to track Santa Claus’ every movement using the same technology that kept the commies off our backs during the Cold War. What may surprise you is that we only started doing so because of a single typographical error in 1955.

It all began with a newspaper advertisement placed by a Colorado Springs-area Sears. “Hey kiddies!” the ad read, “Call [Santa] direct… just dial ME2-6681!” It was truly a noble, if not commercially driven, effort on Sears’s part.

Unfortunately, in their attempts to brighten the holiday spirits of children everywhere, Sears accidentally breached national security through a misprint and published the top-secret phone number to a missile defense command center.

Whoops!

Whoops!

The ranking officer at CONAD, NORAD’s predecessor at the time, that night was a US Air Force colonel named Harry Shoup, and — as Shoup recalls — the operation center’s red phone rang, which typically meant the Pentagon was calling for an unpleasant reason somewhere along the lines of nuclear Armageddon.

Much to Shoup’s great surprise though, he heard not on the other end of the receiver the metaphorical sound of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe against a podium, but rather that of a young Coloradan girl asking the colonel if he was really Santa. Shoup replied yes.

After reassuring the girl that he would make it to her house that night and standing down from DEFCON 4 (okay, that second part didn’t actually happen — DEFCON didn’t even start up until ’59), Shoup instructed his staff to give out Santa’s location to any random children that happened to call the classified military missile defense hotline. They did, and a holiday tradition was born.

The Santa Tracking service has since ballooned in popularity. It’s now a privately sponsored operation available on a veritable sleigh-load of media channels — the most popular of which is here. In their efforts to track Santa, NORAD utilizes radar, global positioning satellites and SantaCams set up in cities all over the world. More interesting is that NORAD also provides a fighter escort for Santa — CF-18s when he’s in Canada and F-16s, F-15s, F-22s when in the United States. According to NORAD’s website, “Santa always waves. He loves to see the pilots!”

I don’t blame him. Santa, to his credit, still hasn’t been ordered shot down and isn’t likely to be any time in the near future — though there’s always next year. Keep your eyes on the skies!