NORAD Tracks St. Nicholas
By Jon Welte
Early on in the Cold War, the United States developed a secure and hardened command and control system to guard against surprise attack. In its later days, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, performed this mission from the Cheyenne Mountain command post, buried deep within the Rocky Mountains. In 1955, however, CONAD—NORAD’s predecessor agency—operated its Combat Operations Center from a nondescript but highly secret office block at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. A cadre of specially selected and highly trained airmen and officers monitored surveillance data gathered from the frontiers of the Arctic, constantly on watch for any sign of hostile aerial intrusion across the North Pole. The COC was outfitted with the most sophisticated equipment available, but to maintain simple and immediate communications with the national command authority a single red phone lay upon the commanding officer’s desk—a red phone with a special direct number known only at the Pentagon and by the commander of CONAD. It was reserved for the direst calls.
On December 24th, 1955, the red phone rang.
The commanding officer on duty was Colonel Harry Shoup. Without hesitation Shoup picked up the phone, no doubt expecting grim news. To his astonishment, the voice on the line was not that of a commanding general but instead a small child, asking if the colonel might be Santa Claus. Confused and bewildered, not sure if the call was a mistake or an ill-conceived joke, Shoup responded sharply and the caller soon rang off, leaving Shoup to ponder how CONAD’s secret hotline had been hacked.
The reason quickly became clear, as more children called soon after. The Sears Roebuck store in Colorado Springs had run a special advertisement in the local newspaper earlier that day, featuring a beaming Santa Claus and an invitation to children to call and speak to him personally. Sears had established a hotline of its own to handle the expected volume of calls, but the number in the advertisement was misprinted by a single digit—and by coincidence, the misprinted number was that of the secret direct-dial hotline to Col. Shoup’s red phone.
Shoup had been trained to respond quickly and decisively in a crisis. As the phone calls mounted and the magnitude of the situation became clear, the colonel quickly established a detachment of airmen to take all calls coming in through the red phone. Their mission would be to provide children with the latest tracking information on Santa Claus’ whereabouts as he made his annual Christmas Eve trek around the world. That night a new institution was born, one that would take just a bit of the edge away from the daunting mission of staring across polar frontiers towards a menacing adversary: NORAD Tracks Santa.
NORAD was established as a joint operation between the United States and Canada in 1958, taking responsibility for the surveillance and air defense missions of CONAD. Its mission, then as now, was to provide early warning of any air- or space-born threats to the North American continent, and coordinate its air defense. Initially, the threat consisted of air-breathing aircraft flying across the North Pole and into North America. To detect such threats well in advance, the Distant Early Warning Line was established along the northern edge of North America. Consisting of a string of radar stations north of the Arctic Circle between Alaska and Greenland, the DEW Line was operated by the United States and Royal Canadian Air Forces and provided advanced early warning of any questionable incursions.
By the late 1950s the advent of space technology brought the new transpolar menace of intercontinental rocketry, with vehicles capable of flying at enormous speeds well out of the atmosphere and beyond the detection range of the DEW radars. To expand its reach to near-Earth space a new Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, or BMEWS, was developed. Three massive radars were erected at sites in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Gazing across the pole with electronic eyes, these radars kept watch over near-Earth space against any unknown object, at ranges far beyond what the DEW system could manage. Shortly after becoming operational, the BMEWS radar sited at Thule, Greenland famously detected an object in space rising over the Arctic Ocean—an object that was quickly determined to be the Moon.
With comprehensive air and space surveillance equipment in place across the polar regions, NORAD is perfectly positioned to track the annual voyage of St. Nick. Col. Shoup continued the tradition of answering Santa calls on an ad hoc basis for several years, then in 1958 organized an official Santa Tracking organization under the aegis of NORAD. A force of volunteers from Canada and the United States stepped up to fill the role of Santa Trackers, working with NORAD controllers to monitor the jolly old elf and provide updates to children through a new, officially sanctioned phone number. In 1997 the tracking effort went online for the first time, and in 2011 official Santa Tracking Apps became available for both Apple and Android phones. In 2013 nearly 20 million discrete users from over 100 countries checked in at NORAD’s official Santa Tracking website for information on Santa’s whereabouts.