History of the Santa Tracker: How a typo began Christmas tracking at NORAD
How did a typo in my local newspaper erroneously connect to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center, now at NORAD here in Colorado Springs with requests for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in 1955 — and how can you check in on him this year?
Back in 1955, the home of the Continental Air Defense Command would eventually become NORAD in 1958. You’ve probably heard of NORAD in movies like Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, WarGames, and ID4. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a joint US/Canadian military installation that sits 1,600 feet below Cheyenne Mountain here in Colorado Springs. When it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s it was intended to be able to handle a nuclear blast outside. Even in this day of MIRV nuclear missiles, NORAD remains its reputation as a self-contained bunker, and for years has been responsible for scanning the airspace above North America for missiles, aircraft, and near-space objects. I’ve visited the missile command center and seen the “big board” during operations, though the displays have only unclassified information when visitors look in.
During the Christmas holiday season in 1955, Sears ran an advertisement in the local Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph newspaper inviting kiddies to call in to talk with Santa. The ad had a typo of a single digit — or a child transposed two of the numbers — that took calls directly to the top secret red crisis phone line of Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer on duty that night. Only a four-star general at the Pentagon had that number.
The first call was from a young child and Shoup was annoyed and thought it was a joke when he was asked to speak to Santa… until the little voice began to cry. Shoup entertained the child with “Ho ho ho’s” and asked to speak to the mother at which time he learned of the newspaper advertisement. He instructed his staff of airmen to furnish intelligence on the location of Santa’s sleigh ride from the North Pole to a number of callers that night. According to his daughter, Shoup called the local radio station and said
“This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.”
Soon the radio stations would call him hourly and ask, “Where’s Santa now?” and a tradition was born. Another version of the story is that the call came in on November 30, and though initially unwilling, Shoup saw a PR opportunity and saw to it that the Press learned “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.” This being the middle of the Cold War, the story went “viral” as they say.
Twelve hundred volunteers, including First Lady Michelle Obama, handle phone calls and emails each Christmas Eve where there are over 70,000 calls and more than 12,000 emails. Over nineteen million visitors from 200 countries check on Santa’s whereabouts via the website. With various web and mobile technologies, you can check in on Santa via NORAD at your choice of technology below:
- Phone: 1–877-Hi-NORAD (1–877–446–6723)
- Email: email@example.com
- Web: www.noradsanta.org
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/noradsanta
- Google’s Santa Tracker: https://santatracker.google.com
- Google+: https://plus.google.com/105978913392534030365/posts
- YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/NORADTracksSanta
- Twitter: @noradsanta
- Apple App Store: here
Over the years Airmen have staffed the phone continuing the tradition. A friend of mine tells his story on Quora here. By the way, this is not your tax dollars at work. The program relies on corporate sponsorship.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian