This Week In Rocket History: History of NORAD Tracks Santa

2021 Backlog is complete! seasonally appropriate. Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.and Beth Johnson helped me write and present this story over on Cosmoquest.

IMAGE: The 1955 Sears ad with, according to legend, the misprinted telephone number that led to the NORAD Tracks Santa program. CREDIT: NORAD Public Affairs, Bob Jones via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of a mission or spacecraft event like normal to wrap up the year, we felt it was appropriate to talk about the uniquely North American tradition of NORAD “tracking Santa Claus”. The story starts on Christmas Eve 1948 when the U.S. military alerted the public to the activities of one “unidentified sleigh”.

Seven years later, in 1955, a Sears advertisement in Colorado invited children to call Santa “day and night”, and he’d personally respond. But the phone number that was printed didn’t ring a phone at the North Pole. Thanks to a typo in the ad, callers were instead connected to the phone on Colonel Harry Shoup’s desk at the Continental Air Defense Command. According to an interview with Colonel Shoup’s children, a child dialed the misprinted number and asked if he was talking to Santa. The colonel thought it was a joke at first, which made the child cry. Realizing what had happened, he quickly played along with the child. The calls kept coming, so a few airmen were assigned to answer the phone to act like Santa Claus.

When Colonel Shoup went into work on Christmas Eve, he was greeted by a drawing of Santa’s sleigh on a map, which was probably created by a bored airman that was also on duty that night. Instead of ordering the airmen to take it down, Shoup called a local radio station to report an unidentified flying object that looked like a sleigh. That quickly led to radio stations calling him asking for updates on Santa’s location.

Colonel Shoup apparently had no intention of making this an annual tradition but decided to keep it up after the Associated Press called asking for Santa updates. When NORAD was founded as a combined agency of the United States and Canada in 1958, the organization continued the tradition.

Over the years, the methods of announcing the progress of Santa’s annual journey changed. In 1999, the NORAD Santa Tracker website was set up, providing a live map showing Santa’s whereabouts. In 2008, Santa’s progress started being announced on Twitter via @NoradSanta.

And it’s not just computer technology that is used. All of NORAD’s military assets are used to track and escort Santa as he travels over North America, including fighter jet escorts by both Canadian and American military jets as he makes his trip. Fortunately for the jets, Santa slows down so they can escort him!

Even the space-borne sensors located in a geo-synchronous orbit are used. These satellites have infrared sensors, meaning they can see heat. When a rocket or missile is launched, a tremendous amount of heat is produced — enough for the satellites to see them. It turns out that Rudolph’s nose gives off an infrared signature similar to a missile launch, so the satellites can detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problems.

In 2020 and again in 2021, the years when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused so many things to be canceled, the NORAD Santa Tracker continues to operate unaffected. If you want to see where Santa is on Christmas Eve, you can visit www.noradsanta.org with your parents.

More Information

Yes, Virginia, There Is a NORAD (The Atlantic)

INTERVIEW: Terri Van Keuren, Rick Shoup and Pamela Farrell (NPR via Story Corps)

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Erik Madaus

Erik Madaus

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