NORAD readies for Christmas Eve mission to track Santa

Friday - 12/23/2011, 10:38am EST

Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James, NORAD

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By Michael O'Connell
@moconnellWFED
Web Editor
Federal News Radio

The U.S. and Canadian militaries are scrambling around this morning, working on last-minute checks of their radar and satellites. They're preparing for a very important mission that starts tomorrow. That's when more than 1,200 service members and defense civilians will start looking to the skies for that familiar red nose — Rudolph guiding Santa's sleigh.

"The real key to tracking Santa Claus is Rudolph's red nose," said Canadian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James, who works for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). "It's that infrared signature. It's been the same signature for years and years, but our technology has gotten a little better about picking him up and tracking."

According to Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James, NORAD tracks Santa Claus' Christmas Eve flight using the infrared signature of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nose. (AP-Graphic)

James told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris the tracking project continues to grow each year. On Christmas Eve 2010, the Track Center website received almost 15.5 million unique visitors from 227 countries and territories.

"Last year, they took more than 80,000 phone calls from around the world," said James. "They answered emails. Even the first lady, Michelle Obama, answered NORAD Track Center phone calls."

Children can access NORAD's holiday tracker online or on Facebook, Twitter or GooglePlus. They can also download a free NORAD Tracks Santa app from iTunes.

The program started in 1955 when a Colorado Springs, Colo., newspaper misprinted an ad directing people to a phone number they could call to find out where Santa Claus was. The number instead went to the desk phone of Col. Harry Shoup, the director of the Continental Air Defense Command.

"When that red phone rang, it was usually the President or the Pentagon calling," James said. "When he picked it up, it was a young girl asking for the whereabouts of Santa Claus."

James explained that Shoup was just the right person to take that call. Rather than telling the girl she had the wrong number, he directed his staff that night to take every one of those calls and update the children on Santa Claus' location.

In 1958, the U.S. and Canada created NORAD, a bi-national air defense command, which took over the duties of tracking Santa on his Christmas Eve journey.

Although the holiday mission creates extra work, it's something that everyone involved looks forward to doing.

"It's such a great thing that we're able to do," James said. "I don't know of another military organization that can do something that is such goodwill in nature. ... It brings everybody a lot of warmth at Christmastime."