NORAD celebrates 60 years of tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve

By Steve Brachmann
December 24, 2015

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NORAD Canada Santa Radar Tracking” by Cpl. Pierre Theriault, Canadian Forces. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Later this evening, on December 24th, Santa Claus will guide his team of nine reindeer, led by Rudolph’s red nose, from the North Pole to points across the globe, spreading good cheer and presents to children of all races, languages and creeds. At that time, the progress of Santa’s journey will be closely tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint operation of the United States and Canadian federal governments. 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the NORAD Santa Tracker, a time-honored military tradition wherein the resources of our continent’s aerospace control and defense systems are devoted to following St. Nick through the skies.

Children from coast to coast were reassured recently when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) took a moment during a Senate congressional hearing to ask Gen. Paul Silva of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if NORAD would continue to track Santa this year. Silva responded that the military agency was expecting another full run for Santa and his crew this year and that he had no intelligence suggesting any issues with the task of monitoring Santa’s sleigh on its trip around the world.

The military and aerospace defense tools operated to complete NORAD objectives makes the agency a perfect fit for keeping its eyes on jolly old St. Nicholas. The military operation controls a network of satellites, ground-based radar, airborne radar and fighter aircraft to monitor the North American air space, typically for threats. However, on December 24th, the combat-ready Canadian and American aircraft are given new purpose as they stand by, ready to protect Santa at a moment’s notice if any malevolent forces think that they stand a chance in disrupting Christmas for the entire world.

With many years of Santa tracking under its belt, it’s possible that NORAD has the world’s largest compendium of data collected from analysis of Santa’s previous Christmas trips. Last year, the agency released a fact sheet about Santa’s sleigh, reported by multiple news outlets. The sleigh, designed by engineering firm K. Kringle & Elves, Inc., took its first flight back in 343 C.E., making it one of the world’s oldest functioning machines. It measures 75 candy canes (150 lollipops) in length without reindeer and weighs 75,000 gumdrops at takeoff; snow and ice accumulation adds another 5,000 gumdrops in total weight by the end of the trip. Despite its lightweight construction, the craft is capable of carrying a payload of 80,000 tons in presents. Santa weighs 260 pounds at takeoff but returns home to the North Pole after gaining 1,000 pounds, presumably from enjoying the milk and cookies left out for him by grateful girls and boys. The aircraft is classified as weaponized, although it is noted that the sleigh’s antler armaments are purely for defensive purposes. Fuel requirements consist solely of hay, oats and carrots to feed the nine reindeer, making Santa’s sleigh perhaps the greenest mode of transportation possible. The aircraft has a climbing speed of one twinkle of an eye and a maximum speed which is faster than starlight.

To keep everyone aware of Santa’s progress, NORAD makes its tracking data available online. This year, those looking to see where Santa is heading can check out his progress on mobile devices as well as desktop computers. Program managers at NORAD have said that anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of those accessing the Santa tracker are doing so using smartphones or tablets. In the days leading up to Santa’s Christmas journey, anyone can log into the NORAD Santa Tracker to get into the holiday spirit with music, games and videos about the aerospace agency’s past activities in keeping a watchful eye on Santa Claus. Those who are hoping to track Santa’s flight closely will be able to start at 3 AM EST on the morning of December 24th, the time when Santa starts his global trek on his sleigh.

"NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center 2007" by NORAD Public Affairs, Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braym. Public domain.

“NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center 2007” by NORAD Public Affairs, Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braym. Public domain.

The story of NORAD’s focus on monitoring Santa’s activities on Christmas eve goes back to December 1955, when Col. Harry Shoup of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), NORAD’s predecessor, picked up the phone when a child intending to reach Santa Claus incorrectly dialed a phone number. Although the story has changed slightly over the course of years, the bi-national military organization has embraced its role in keeping a close watch over Santa and protecting him as he travels across the world. Children calling into NORAD on Christmas Eve will talk to one of about 1,200 volunteer military personnel in uniform who have devoted their holidays to reassure children everywhere that their presents are on the way. This Christmas, NORAD is expecting to field 125,000 telephone calls from children as far away as New Zealand. In preparation, the agency has built a call center including 157 operating phone lines, dozens of computer and miles of wiring.

NORAD has its origins as a defense organization meant to answer the potential threat of Soviet Union missile attacks. After the end of the Cold War, NORAD remained operational to keep the U.S. on alert for threats from sources other than the former USSR. In recent years, the agency’s air defense resources have been called upon to address threats from terrorists and monitor inappropriate flight activities sponsored by foreign nations. NORAD activities are operated out of three regional North American bases: Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska; Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Control of NORAD operations is housed in the commander’s headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

The aerospace defense agency continues to adapt in the fight to address ever-changing issues in air space control. In August of this year, a NORAD project named Falcon Virgo 15-13 tested the nation’s air defense system in its ability to track slow-flying low-level drones, a technical and operational challenge that has been exploited by drones and gyroscopes operating in restricted air space near Washington, D.C. in recent weeks. In April, NORAD issued guidance asking for funding a series of active electronically scanned array radar equipments that would be installed on F-16 aircraft defending America’s capital region.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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