Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus . . . and NORAD Is Tracking Him!

As politicians argue over government spending, there is one line item that is likely to stay in the budget for the foreseeable future: the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD's) yearly Santa Watch. For the last 54 years, the military command -- tasked with protecting the US and Canada against missile attacks -- has answered phone calls from children who want to track the jolly old elf's progress across the Western Hemisphere.Actually, the Santa Watch began long before NORAD came into being. In December 1955, Sears Roebuck ran a newspaper ad with what they claimed was Santa's direct number. Unfortunately, the phone number they offered was one digit off; instead of Sears, it linked to a top secret line at CONAD, the Continental Air Defense Command. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the command's director of operations, answered the phone, he expected to hear about a missile strike against the US. Instead, he got a little kid who wanted to talk to Santa.

Although the conversation ended with the child crying and Shoup fuming, the Colonel eventually came around and began giving the children updates on Santa's travels through the night sky. The following year, CONAD offered a new, non-secret, phone number that children could call. In 1958, when CONAD became NORAD, the new command continued the tradition.

Over the following decades, the tradition has grown. In 2008, 1,275 people, 100 phones, and 25 computers handled 69,845 phone calls and 6,086 e-mails from around the world. In order to ensure that the many volunteers don't issue conflicting reports, Santa Watch uses a large wall-sized map that integrates the latest Santa sightings with Google maps. For basic Santa tracking, NORAD relies on the same 47 radar installations, fighter jets and spy satellites that help it identify enemy missiles. In addition, the command's website states that it uses digital cameras positioned around the world that capture images of Santa.

Presumably, this four-pronged defense system protects against friendly-fire incidents: after all, it isn't hard to imagine how the combination of a red sled, eight reindeer, a red-clad gift giver and a highly vigilant military defense system could result in roasted venison and a ruined holiday.

As NORAD has gotten more complex, so has its Santa tracking. In 1998, the command introduced the program to the Internet, enabling children to watch Santa's movement from the comfort of their own computers. In 2007, Google came on board, giving NORAD access to its 2-D maps and 3-D Google Earth resources to improve its tracking. Gmail also provides an address that children can use to email their lists directly to Santa. With a presence on most social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the program is prepared to tell children around the world about the wonders of Santa -- and NORAD.
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