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CHIPS Articles: NORAD’s Famous Santa Tracker Started as a Fluke

NORAD’s Famous Santa Tracker Started as a Fluke
By Katie Lange, DoD News, Defense Media Activity - December 23, 2015
Tracking Santa on his trek across the world has been a holiday tradition for many American families for decades. But did you know that it all started because of a mistake?

Kids across the U.S. have grown accustomed to keeping track of the big guy’s journey through the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Santa Tracker. They can track his flight path online, watch video of his progress through apps or just make a good ole-fashioned phone call to find out where he is.

But the whole thing wasn’t cooked up by some NORAD super-genius. It turns out it only got started because of a misprint in a newspaper advertisement.

How the Tradition Began

Sixty years ago on Dec. 24, 1955, the folks at the previously named Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center in Colorado were working a typical night shift when Air Force Col. Harry Shoup got an unusual phone call.

“This call wasn’t from the president or a general. It was from a young child in Colorado Springs who was following the directions from a local department store advertisement printed in the local newspaper,” said NORAD spokesman Marco Chouinard. “The youngster wanted to know the whereabouts of Santa Claus.”

Apparently the newspaper ad was from Santa telling children to call him directly at the number on the page — except the number was wrong. It rang into the CADCOC instead.

Shoup answered the first call that came in. He could have been a scrooge about it, but he wasn’t. /

“He received numerous calls that night, and rather than hanging up, he had his operator find the location of Santa Claus and reported it to every child who called in that night. Thus began the tradition,” Chouinard said.

It’s a tradition that rolled over to NORAD when it was formed in 1958, and it’s been getting more popular and more technologically-savvy ever since. Aside from calling in to talk, kids can now email, Skype, Twitter, Facebook and use apps to follow Santa. Even OnStar is helping track him.

A Team Effort

Tracking Santa is a big task that begins in November, when starts getting inquiries from families. More than 70 government and non-government contributors help set up the site, apps and phone lines, while more than 1,500 uniformed personnel, Department of Defense civilians and their families volunteer time on Christmas Eve to answer the children’s questions on Santa’s whereabouts.

Chouinard said more than 230 countries and territories visit the website. Last year, it had 21 million unique visitors, and the Facebook page had 1.6 million fans.

“Last year we received over 134,000 calls, answered over 6,500 emails, and OnStar received over 2,600 requests to locate Santa,” Chouinard said. “I think it’s an important tradition. We’re happy to be part of that family experience.”

The call center opens at 6 a.m. EST Dec. 24. Kids can call 1-877-I-NORAD (446-6723) or email to find out where he’s at. But Chouinard warned that Santa only comes if children are asleep, so make sure they get into bed early so he doesn’t miss your house.

Have fun tracking him, and be sure to leave some carrots for the reindeer with Santa’s milk and cookies!

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DoD graphic by MC3 Tim Haake
Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, the operations officer at NORAD on Dec. 24, 1955, answered a wrong-number call and began the tradition of NORAD tracking Santa. Courtesy photo
Matthew Harvey joined his mother, Col. Tina Harvey, to help answer emails from children and parents across the globe while at the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Dec. 24. Photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh
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