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NORAD Santa Tracker

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The True Story of Why NORAD Started Tracking Santa During the Cold War

We all know about the NORAD Santa Tracker, but did you know that NORAD didn’t originally intend to get involved?

A Tumblr thread recently broke down the little-known story, which was previously recorded as a part of NPR’s StoryCorps.

It all started in 1955 with an enterprising Sears store in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

As part of a Yuletide marketing campaign, the store put out a flyer that included a phone number for children to call and speak to Santa Claus.

The number was meant to ring through to Santa’s workshop in the local Sears.

But instead of reaching Toyland, children were dialing up the secret red phone of Colonel Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD.

As Shoup’s adult children later told NPR, at first he thought it was a prank.

“Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” [daughter Terri Van Keuren] says.

“This was the 󈧶s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States,” [Shoup’s son] Rick says.

When a small voice asked the flustered colonel if he was really Santa Claus, he quickly went into father-mode and asked the tot what he wanted for Christmas.

This all happened in early December, which didn’t leave much time to correct the mistake.

“So now the phone is ringing off the hook. [My father] called AT&T and said to give Sears that phone number and get him a new one, but in the meantime he had to have servicemen answer the calls.”

Soon, so many children were calling that Colonel Shoup had to assign airmen to answer the phones.

“The airmen had this big glass board with the United States on it and Canada, and when airplanes would come in they would track them,” [daughter] Pam says.

“And Christmas Eve of 1955, when Dad walked in, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole,” Rick says.

Rather than making the soldiers take the board down, Shoup took it one step further, calling the local radio station every hour with an update on Santa’s whereabouts, and the modern holiday tradition was born.

Today kids don’t even have to pick up the phone. They can track Santa online.


Vintage Footage Reveals How NORAD Tracks Santa

This Christmas Eve, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will have tracked Santa Claus’s journey around the world for 60 years.

Colonel Harry Shoup began the tradition in 1955, after receiving a phone call from a child expecting to reach Santa Claus. The misdirected call was the result of the child reversing two numbers of a Santa Line phone number printed in a Sears advertisement.

Colonel Shoup ran with the idea, and began releasing updates on Santa’s whereabouts to the press.

In 1974, the NORAD released this footage to television stations in order to show the public how NORAD’s Santa tracking operations worked.

This year, 1,250 volunteers will staff the NORAD phone lines. The volunteers are a mix of Canadian and American military personnel and Department of Defense civilians. The Santa Tracker hotline can be reached at 1(877)446-6723 starting at 3AM MST on December 24th and continuing through 3AM MST on December 25th. You can also e-mail [email protected] for an update on Santa’s location on Christmas Eve. Visit NORAD’s Santa Tracker online to follow the jolly old man’s travels, play games, or learn more about the project.

You can hear Colonel Shoup’s children reminisce about their father in this lovely StoryCorps piece.

For much more on the history of NORAD’s Santa Tracker, see this article, which traces the operation over the past 60 years.


In 2012, AGI partnered with the Cesium team to build a 3D web map for visualizing Santa’s location as he made his way around the globe. With Cesium, children could see Santa’s current position in the air as he flew around a 3D globe complete with global terrain and satellite imagery. Billboards, or flat signs that face the camera, drew attention to locations Santa visited, and when users clicked on a location, they were able to view videos of Santa, as well as Wikipedia articles about the selected area.

At that time Cesium was in its very earliest stages&it was still in beta!& but even then it gave children a seamless, immersive, interactive view into Santa’s flight. Cesium is an open-source virtual globe and map engine originally designed for aerospace applications where visualizing precise geographic and temporal locations is critical. Cesium is built on WebGL, a standard for rendering interactive 2D and 3D graphics in a web browser that was itself a brand new technology at the time the Khronos Group had just released version 1.0 of the WebGL specification in 2011. Because Cesium is built on WebGL, it is cross platform-friendly (including Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari), can run on a wide variety of devices including mobile, and doesn’t require a plug-in.

So what’s the magic behind the map? The Santa tracker updates Santa’s location and puts icons on the globe at locations he has already visited using CZML packets. CZML is an open specification developed by the Cesium team for describing time-dynamic 3D scenes. Using the latest information about Santa’s location provided NORAD, AGI’s STK Components generates new CZML packets, which are then streamed into the Santa tracking map.

The map uses Bing satellite imagery Microsoft is one of the major partners in this effort.

The terrain dataset is STK World Terrain, which is generated from a variety of open data sources, such as GTOPO30, NED (National Terrain Dataset), and SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission), using AGI’s STK Terrain Server. The STK Terrain Server takes the raw data formats and processes them into the quantized mesh format, an open specification developed by the Cesium team for faster terrain tile streaming on the web.


Follow Santa as he makes his way around the world, bringing Christmas joy to families around the globe. Watch his journey with help from NORAD on our streaming channel TODAY ALL DAY beginning at 3 p.m. ET on Dec. 24 and going until 3 a.m. ET on Dec. 25. Parents will be able to call 660-55-SANTA to receive a special message for their kids from the big guy himself!

A tradition that will celebrate its 65th year on Christmas Eve began with a child calling a misprinted phone number from a department store's Christmas ad in the newspaper.

U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup answered the phone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), a predecessor to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), in 1955 to a call from the child.

"He probably thought for a few moments that it may be some type of a prank call, but he quickly realized it was a young child looking for Santa," Gen. Glen VanHerck, Commander, U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, told Kerry Sanders on TODAY Thursday.

Shoup played along, assuring the caller he was the big man himself and reassuring the child that CONAD would guarantee Santa a safe journey from the North Pole. His legacy lives on after his death at 91 in 2009.

"He loved Christmas so much and loved kids, and loved stories," Shoup's daughter, Pam Farrell, said on TODAY.

"I guess the flavor of this I want to be is, do the right thing, do the kind thing," Terri Van Keuren, another one of Shoup's daughters, said on TODAY. "He could have hung up on the kid — he didn't."


Yes, NORAD Says There is a Santa Claus

On November 30, 1955, a phone rang on Col. Harry Shoup’s desk at Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). CONAD was tasked with watching for a Soviet attack by air and alerting Strategic Air Command. In the midst of the Cold War, a phone call to Colonel Shoup’s desk could have brought critical news for national security.

However, when Colonel Shoup answered, the little voice on the other end asked “Is this Santa Claus?”

“There may be a guy called Santa Claus, at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction,” was Shoup’s reply, according to an article that ran the following day. One can only imagine how the young caller reacted.

Why call CONAD to reach Santa? It all started with a misdial. That year, Sears ran an ad where Santa invited young people to “Call me direct on my telephone.” However, one caller didn’t heed the ad’s warning to “be sure and dial the correct number,” and instead reached Colonel Shoup—sparking a chain of events that would become a Christmas tradition.

The week of Christmas, Shoup’s staff added Santa and his sleigh to the plexiglass map CONAD used to track unidentified aircraft. The joke sparked an idea and CONAD told press they “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.”

Journalist Matt Novak of Gizmodo points out that both Shoup and CONAD’s responses were less “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and more “Yes, Virginia, there is a Cold War.” Their messaging, that CONAD was there to protect Santa against threats, aligned with a larger media campaign focusing on the importance of air defense.

However, the Cold War wasn’t the first time the U.S. military reported seeing Santa. According to Yoni Appelbaum for The Atlantic, during World War II, General Eisenhower issued a press release confirming “a new North Pole Command has been formed … Santa Claus is directing operations … He has under his command a small army of gnomes,” although the censored version cut out the location of Santa’s headquarters. In 1948, the Air Force reported one of their early warning radars had detected “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet, heading 180 degrees.”

CONAD would soon set itself apart from these earlier messages of Santa Claus levity. In 1956, one year after Colonel Shoup spoke with the young caller, , the Associated Press and United Press International called to ask if Shoup’s team planned to track Santa again, and CONAD confirmed they did. In 1958, the newly established North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) continued—and grew—the tradition.

NORAD tracks Santa in this 1975 video, courtesy of the National Archives.

In the 1960s, NORAD sent records to radio stations with updates on Santa’s path to play for their listeners. The 1970s brought with it Santa Tracker commercials. By 1997, Santa Tracker went digital—launching the website may of our younger readers will be familiar with. (Which has, of course, received some enhancements since then.)

How NORAD tracks Santa has also evolved over the years. Their website explains that they now use a combination of radar, satellites that “detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem,” and jet fighters. “Canadian NORAD fighter pilots, flying the CF-18, take off out of Newfoundland and welcome Santa to North America,” explains NORAD, and in the United States, “American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15s, F16s or F-22s get the thrill of flying with Santa.”

Today, you can follow NORAD’s Santa updates online, over social media, via email, live chat—and of course, how it all started, by calling NORAD. Operators are available on Christmas Eve until midnight—probably because they need to be in bed before Santa comes.


NORAD’s amazing 60-year Santa tracking history

Reuters

Pretty remarkable stuff here. The National Archive blog takes a look at the background of the nation’s premier defense unit’s tracking of Santa as he travels around the globe delivering his Christmas goodies.

Some of the facts I thought were pretty cool:

  • This Christmas Eve will be the 60 th year the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will have tracked Santa Claus’s journey.
  • Colonel Harry Shoup began the tradition in 1955, after receiving a phone call from a child expecting to reach Santa Claus. The misdirected call was the result of the child reversing two numbers of a Santa Line phone number printed in a Sears advertisement, according to the National Archives.
  • This year, 1,250 volunteers will staff the NORAD phone lines answering questions about the trip. The volunteers are a mix of Canadian and American military personnel and Department of Defense civilians.
  • The Santa Tracker hotline can be reached at 1(877)446-6723 starting at 3AM MST on December 24th and continuing through 3AM MST on December 25th.
  • Official NORAD Tracks Santa apps are available in the Windows, Apple and Google Play stores. Tracking opportunities are also offered on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+. Santa followers just need to type “@noradsanta” into each search engine to get started.

Inside the North American Aerospace Defense Command Santa Tracking unit in Colorado Springs, Colorado,


The True Story of Why NORAD Started Tracking Santa During the Cold War

We all know about the NORAD Santa Tracker, but did you know that NORAD didn’t originally intend to get involved?

A Tumblr thread recently broke down the little-known story, which was previously recorded as a part of NPR’s StoryCorps.

It all started in 1955 with an enterprising Sears store in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

As part of a Yuletide marketing campaign, the store put out a flyer that included a phone number for children to call and speak to Santa Claus.

The number was meant to ring through to Santa’s workshop in the local Sears.

But instead of reaching Toyland, children were dialing up the secret red phone of Colonel Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD.

As Shoup’s adult children later told NPR, at first he thought it was a prank.

“Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” [daughter Terri Van Keuren] says.

“This was the 󈧶s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States,” [Shoup’s son] Rick says.

When a small voice asked the flustered colonel if he was really Santa Claus, he quickly went into father-mode and asked the tot what he wanted for Christmas.

This all happened in early December, which didn’t leave much time to correct the mistake.

“So now the phone is ringing off the hook. [My father] called AT&T and said to give Sears that phone number and get him a new one, but in the meantime he had to have servicemen answer the calls.”

Soon, so many children were calling that Colonel Shoup had to assign airmen to answer the phones.

“The airmen had this big glass board with the United States on it and Canada, and when airplanes would come in they would track them,” [daughter] Pam says.

“And Christmas Eve of 1955, when Dad walked in, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole,” Rick says.

Rather than making the soldiers take the board down, Shoup took it one step further, calling the local radio station every hour with an update on Santa’s whereabouts, and the modern holiday tradition was born.

Today kids don’t even have to pick up the phone. They can track Santa online.


A child calling Santa reached NORAD instead. Christmas Eve was never the same.

Col. Harry Shoup was a real by-the-book guy.

At home, his two daughters were limited to phone calls of no more than three minutes (monitored by an egg timer) and were automatically grounded if they missed curfew by even a minute. At work, during his 28-year Air Force career, the decorated fighter pilot was known as a no-nonsense commander and stickler for rules.

Which makes what happened that day in 1955 even more of a Christmas miracle.

It was a December day in Colorado Springs when the phone rang on Col. Shoup’s desk. Not the black phone, the red phone.

“When that phone rang, it was a big deal,” said Shoup’s daughter, Terri Van Keuren, 69, a retiree in Castle Rock, Colo. “It was the middle of the Cold War and that phone meant bad news.”

Shoup was a commander of the Continental Air Defense Command, CONAD, the early iteration of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Then, as now, the joint U.S.-Canadian operation was the tense nerve center of America’s defensive shield against a sneak air attack. In 1955, the command center was filled with a massive map of North America on plexiglass, behind which backward-writing technicians on scaffolds marked every suspect radar blip in grease pencil.

It was not a place of fun and games. And when that red phone rang — it was wired directly to a four-star general at the Pentagon — things got real. All eyes would have been on Shoup when he answered.

“Col. Shoup,” he barked. But there was silence.

Until finally, a small voice said, “Is this Santa Claus?”

Shoup, by all accounts, was briefly confused and then fully annoyed. “Is this a joke?” Glaring at the wide-eyed staff for any sign of a smile, he let the caller have it with all the indignity of a bird-colonel who brooked no nonsense on this most vital of all phone lines.

“Just what do you think you’re doing," he began.

But then the techno-military might of the United States was brought up short by the sound of sniffles. Whoever was on the phone was crying, and Shoup suddenly realized it really was a child who was trying to reach Santa Claus.

The colonel paused, considered and then responded:

“Ho, ho, ho!” he said as his crew looked on astonished. “Of course this is Santa Claus. Have you been a good boy?”

He talked to the local youngster for several minutes, hearing his wishes for toys and treats and assuring him he would be there on Christmas Eve. Then the boy asked Santa to bring something nice for his mommy.

“I will, I will,” Santa-Shoup said. “In fact, could I speak to your mommy now?”

The boy put his mother on the phone, and Shoup went back to business, crisply explaining to the woman just what facility their call had reached.

“He said later he thought she must have been a military wife,” said Van Keuren. “She was properly cowed.”

But she also had an explanation. The woman asked Shoup to look at that day’s local newspaper. Specifically, at a Sears ad emblazoned with a big picture of Santa that invited kids to “Call me on my private phone, and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.”

The number provided, ME 2-6681, went right to one of the most secure phones in the country.

“They were off by one digit,” said Van Keuren. “It was a typo.”

When Shoup hung up, the phone rang again. He ordered his staff to answer each Santa call while he got on the (black) phone with AT&T to set up a new link to Washington. Let Sears have the old number, he told them.

That might have been the end of it. But a few nights later, Shoup, as was his tradition, took his family to have Christmas Eve dinner with his on-duty troops. When they walked into the control center, he spotted a little image of a sleigh pulled by eight unregistered reindeer, coming over the top of the world.

Van Keuren was only 6 at the time, but the exchange that followed became stuff of both family and Air Force legend.

“What’s that,” the commanding officer asked.

“Just having a little fun Colonel,” they answered, waiting for the blowup.

Shoup pondered the offense as the team waited. Then he ordered someone to get the community relations officer. And soon Shoup was on the phone to a local radio station. CONAD had picked up unidentified incoming, possible North Pole origin, distinctly sleigh-shaped.

The radio station ate it up, the networks got involved and an enduring tradition was born. This Christmas Eve marks the 63rd straight year that NORAD is publicly tracking Santa’s sleigh on its global rounds. “Children in Albania better get to bed soon as #Santa is nearby to deliver presents!” NORAD tweeted Monday evening. Santa and the reindeer were moving quick, reaching Africa a few hours later.

“This is our most feel-good mission,” said Maj. Andrew Hennessy, a Canadian Army officer posted at NORAD headquarters in Colorado. “We know Santa brings lasting joy to kids around the world and we’re glad to have that as our fourth mission one day out of the year.” (On the other 364 days, NORAD’s three-pronged mandate is to oversee air threats, general aerospace control and, in recent years, maritime warnings for potential threats from sea.)


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Watch the video: Live @ Santa Claus Village (July 2022).


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