Tracking “Big Red One”: NORAD’s Secret Santa Mission [UPDATED]

This article is Part 1 of a series on NORAD’s Santa Tracker by Government Book Talk, and tells the history of how a typo in 1955 holiday ad and a NORAD colonel’s heartwarming response to kids led to NORAD tracking Santa Claus (call sign “Big Red One”). Read Part II: “Santa, We Got Your Six!” NORAD’s Santa Tracker Goes High-Tech” that explores the fascinating technology NORAD uses today to keep the Abominable Snowman, the mean Mr. Grinch, and Jack Frost from spoiling Santa’s big flight.

Image: Old NORAD Tracks Santa poster. Source:  NORAD

One of America’s key weapons in defense of its homeland is NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.  With its slogan of “Deter, Detect, Defend” its stated mission is as follows:

The North American Aerospace Defense Command conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning in the defense of North America.

What does “aerospace warning” consist of? It includes “the monitoring of man-made objects in space, and the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles, through mutual support arrangements with other commands.

One of the most unusual but beloved “objects in space” NORAD has had the responsibility for monitoring is none other than Santa Claus.

How did tracking Santa Claus become part of NORAD’s mission? It all began with a typo.

Tinsel typo

‘Twas the night before Christmas, December 24, 1955, when a Sears Roebuck & Co. department store placed an advertisement in a Colorado Springs newspaper telling children that they could telephone Santa Claus directly.

It featured a big picture of St. Nick, a phone number and these instructions, “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct…Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.Ironically, the ad also cautioned, “Kiddies, be sure and dial the correct number!

Image: 1955 Sears ad with NORAD number. Source: NORAD

Unfortunately, the paper misprinted the phone number, listing instead the top secret hotline that was used only in national emergencies to alert CONAD (the Continental Air Defense Command–NORAD’s predecessor) if the Soviets were attacking!

 The “Santa Colonel”

U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, CONAD’s director of operations, grabbed the red emergency phone, thinking an attack was imminent.

According to Shoup’s account, he answered, thinking it was his general, “Sir, are you there?

Image: Col. Harry Shoup, the “Santa Colonel” Source: NORAD

Instead, a little 6 year-old boy’s voice came over the phone asking, “Are you really Santa Claus?” Shoup, thinking it was a prank, barked into the phone asking “Would you repeat that?” and demanding to know who was calling. At this point, the little voice started crying, and asked tentatively, “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?

Soon the phone began ringing off the hook with kids wanting to talk to Santa, so once they figured out the error, Shoup decided to play along and instructed his team to act as Santa’s helpers. He had his radar operators check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole.

Image: A 1955 red hotline phone.  Source: VintageRotaryPhones.com

Children who called were given updates on the current location of St. Nick and his reindeer-drawn flying sleigh, and a beloved annual Christmas tradition was born.

Shoup became known as the “Santa Colonel,” a moniker he cherished until his death, his daughter says.

Santa Tracker goes high-tech

In 1958 Canada joined the alliance and CONAD became NORAD, which carried on the Santa mission. Originally, Santa tracking updates were delivered via radio broadcasts and of course, calling the Santa Tracking hotline, but with the introduction of the Internet, Santa tracking went online by Christmas 1997.

Guarding What You Value Most: North American Aerospace Defense Command Celebrating 50 Years (available in Hardcover Print or as an eBook) is the terrific publication documenting NORAD’s illustrious 50+ years of  history and provides easy-to-follow timelines of key NORAD events along with copious color photographs, maps and snippets of history of this important organization.

The publication also proudly covers the history of its favorite mission— Santa tracking— stating:

“Today, using the same technology used to perform their day-to-day mission— satellites, high-powered radars and jet fighters— NORAD tracks Santa Claus as he makes his Yuletide journey around the world.” 

[This new video also gives some of the history of how the Santa Tracker started in 1955 and some of the technology in place for 2013.]

Specifically, NORAD’s Santa site says that it uses four different high-tech systems to track Santa–radar, satellites, Santa Cams and fighter jets:

Tracking Santa starts with the NORAD radar system called the North Warning System. This powerful radar system consists of 47 installations strung across the northern border of North America. On Christmas Eve, NORAD monitors the radar systems continuously for indications that Santa Claus has left the North Pole.

The moment that radar indicates Santa has lifted off, we use our second detection system. Satellites positioned in geo-synchronous orbit at 22,300 miles from the Earth’s surface are equipped with infrared sensors, which enable them to detect heat. Amazingly, Rudolph’s bright red nose gives off an infrared signature, which allows our satellites to detect Rudolph and Santa.

The third tracking system is the Santa Cam network. Santa Cams are ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras that are pre-positioned at many locations around the world to capture images and video.

The fourth system is made up of fighter jets. First, Canadian NORAD fighter pilots flying the CF-18 intercept and welcome Santa to North America. In the US, American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15 or the F-16 provide an escort flying alongside Santa and his famous reindeer.

Santa goes mobile… and Global!  

[UPDATE DECEMBER 2012]:For Christmas 2012 Google is stepping aside to make room for other companies to help track Santa. Said a NORAD spokesperson: “This year, NTS and Google mutually agreed to go in new directions, and we are excited to welcome a number of new contributors, to include Microsoft, Windows Azure, Bing, and iLink-systems, among others, to help us in our mission of tracking Santa.

Thanks to dozens of volunteer local translators, NORAD Tracks Santa website is now offered in 8 languages, including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese.

Listening along with the live computer video clips, many parents use this as an opportunity to give a fun world geography lesson as the family follows Santa’s path around the world. Volunteer military personnel give running commentary and interesting tidbits about the cities as Santa passes through.  For example, did you know that NORAD’s satellites and radar clocked Santa’s sleigh going 100 times faster than the Japanese bullet train?

How many “elves” does it take to track “Big Red”?

Today, children young and old all over the world can call in or email NORAD on Christmas Eve to find out just where Santa is, or, since Santa went digital, follow along on NORAD’s cutting edge web site.

NORAD has over a thousand volunteers every year from Canadian NORAD and U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel and their families, who record audio and come in to NORAD on Christmas Eve to staff the phones and answer emails to anxious children wanting to know if here comes Santa Claus right down their particular Santa Claus Lane…  Meanwhile engineers ensure the tracking systems are on target and U.S. fighter jets stand ready to escort the “celebrity” that NORAD calls “Big Red” as he passes through U.S. air space.

In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama helped on the Santa Tracker hotline phones.

How can you track Santa on Christmas Eve?

So, on the night before Christmas, when not a creature is stirring, you might want to rouse your mouse– uh, your computer version, of course– and surf over to NoradSanta.org or call 1-877-HI-NORAD (1.877.446.6723) from North America to find out when Santa Claus is coming to YOUR town. (By the way, Santa’s helpers at NORAD are great at reminding the kids to go to bed because Santa is near and won’t stop if they’re awake!)

Image: How the Air Force and NORAD Tracks Santa Claus video at NORAD location in Cheyenne Mountain. Source: Around the Air Force news special, December 2005.

Starting at 4am Eastern Time on December 24, you can:

  • Track Santa Online: Logon to www.NoradSanta.org.
  • Call the Santa Hotline: Starting at 4 am Mountain Standard Time (6 am Eastern Standard Time) on December 24, the public worldwide can speak with a live phone operator to ask about Santa’s whereabouts by dialing the toll-free number from the United States or Canada: 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723).
  • Email Santa Tracker: Also at 4 am MST/6am EST, the public can also send an email to noradtrackssanta@outlook.com for up-to-date Santa tracking information delivered via email.
  • Maps: Follow Santa on Cesium and Bing Maps, starting 4am EST on December 24th.
  • Mobile Apps: Get links to download the #NoradSanta apps for Windows, Android, iPhone & tablet by clicking here.

Play Games while you wait: While you’re waiting for the tracking of the Big Red One to begin, all December  you can play some of the many fun games on NORAD’s Santa’s Village web page at the North Pole, and stop by the NORAD Tracks Santa Facebook page to show your appreciation.


How can I get a copy of Guarding What You Value Most: North American Aerospace Defense Command Celebrating 50 Years, the wonderful hardcover book or eBook of 50 years of NORAD history chock full of color photos and anecdotes, including the Santa Tracker story?

About the Author: Government Book Talk Editor Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division in Washington, DC, and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore (http://bookstore.gpo.gov) and promoting Federal government content to the public.  She has been a faithful NORAD Tracks Santa fan for years!

57 Responses to Tracking “Big Red One”: NORAD’s Secret Santa Mission [UPDATED]

  1. Shaniya says:

    Thanks for sharing this excellent post about NORAD secrete Santa mission. While you’re waiting for the tracking of the Big Red One to begin, all December you can play some of the many fun games on NORAD’s Santa’s Village web page at the North Pole.keep posting . i really like to play Santa`s games.

    Like

  2. Parco says:

    I love the efforts you have put in this, appreciate it for all the great posts.

    Like

  3. ZM says:

    That’s a good post.

    Like

  4. kristin henderson says:

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this post!
    It is the little changes which will make the biggest changes.

    Thanks a lot for sharing!

    Like

  5. […] “Click here to read the popular Part 1 article, “Tracking “Big Red One”: NORAD’s S… which tells the history of how a fortunate advertising mistake in 1955 and a colonel’s heartwarming response to kids led to NORAD tracking Santa Claus. […]

    Like

  6. facebook says:

    I really enjoyed this! Please update us! Keep up the great work!

    Like

  7. […] Fans of the movie “War Games” will know about NORAD. Learn the true story behind this important homeland airspace defense organization in Guarding What You Value Most: North American Aerospace Defense Command Celebrating 50 Years and a new EPUB eBook version. Includes the heart-warming story of NORAD’s Christmas Eve Santa Tracker. (Read about this in our blog post Tracking “Big Red”: NORAD’s Secret Santa Mission [UPDATED].) […]

    Like

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  11. unzip files says:

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  13. Chantay Kuzel says:

    I just added this blog to my google reader, great stuff. Can not get enough!

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  14. Jan says:

    What’s up, I check your new stuff on a regular basis. Your humoristic style is awesome, keep doing what you’re doing!

    Like

  15. Kendra says:

    Keep on working, great job!

    Like

  16. Mimi says:

    If it’s possible, would you create a printer friendly option for the blog? There have been several I wanted to post at our library, but it takes time to copy and paste from the website into a presentable format. I’ve used a few with book displays. I’d love to use this one too. Thanks,

    Like

  17. milt marhoffer says:

    norad, you guys are the BEST. just as now, each and EVERY time i read about it i cry. when i used to drive a school bus, i’d give all my younger kids the NORADSANTA website. many of my parents thanked me profusely for this. hey, santa’s the man!!!

    Like

    • GPOBookstore says:

      Many here at the Government Printing Office are NORAD Santa Tracker fans, too. They were some that clamored for me to re-post this, along with customers. I’ve been a fan for years, and have now introduced my little nephews to it. I’m sure the kids on your bus and parents were fans of you, too! Thanks for your comment and Happy New Year!

      Like

      • kkaylynne says:

        This Santa Tracker reaffirms my faith in goodness and sweetness every year, late in the year, when my reservoirs of positive thinking run low. Please don’t ever stop tracking Santa for kids of all ages.

        Like

      • GPOBookstore says:

        It seems like this year, more than ever, we needed the reminder that there are good people in this world! Thanks for your comments…

        Like

  18. [...] Read Tracking “Big Red”: NORAD’s Secret Santa Mission to learn how a typo led to a 56 years of NORAD tracking Santa: http://govbooktalk.gpo.gov/2012/12/17/norad-santa-tracker/ [...]

    Like

  19. [...] How did NORAD become a part of tracking Santa? [...]

    Like

  20. Gregory Despain says:

    Thanks

    Like

  21. Kaaty Elizabeth Perry says:

    I have to say that i have been extremely amazed with the quality and information on this blog site and I will undoubtedly be back for some more reading and I would say it is also worth a bookmark!

    Like

  22. Sarkari Naukri says:

    This is a great blog and its contributions is very high amoung to readers thanks for sharing

    Like

  23. istanbul says:

    “Thank you!” to NORAD and the thousands of volunteers, both past and present, who help to keep us all believing in the Christmas Spirit, and Santa himself.

    Like

  24. Manchester says:

    We track Santa every year, our children love it ! For some reason this year it didn’t seem to work as good in the UK !

    Like

  25. Ripon says:

    Hi! Merry Christmas. It’s a very nice charming ride with Santa Claus. Thanks of gratitude to you for bringing me to that world of sweet mild fantasy. Ripon #

    Like

  26. james says:

    Hello world I suggested an increase in the discussions and comments on matters of interests of visitors life and work , thank you.

    Like

    • GPOBookstore says:

      What other specific topics were you hoping to see on the Government Book Talk blog? As it says on the ABOUT tab, the current focus of this blog is to feature only Federal Government publications, past and present:

      Our goal is to raise the profile of some of the best publications from the Federal Government, past and present. We’ll be reviewing new and popular publications, providing information about new publications in the offing, and talking about some out-of-print classics. The goal is to spotlight the amazing variety of Government publications and their impact on ourselves and our world – and have fun while doing it.

      There are not as many travel and tourism-related publications being produced by the Federal Government these days, so we are focusing on other noteworthy books, journals, forms and so forth.

      Like

  27. Rurik says:

    Happy New Year 2012. Its an interesting story.

    http://www.swostihotels.com/

    Like

  28. Kaylynne Karoly says:

    This is wonderful. I am crying with joy reading the grace epitomized here. It is American and Canada at their best. Thank you beyond words.

    Like

  29. This is the most caring and warm story I have read in a long time. It’s funny how tradition start, thanks to a misprint and a really nice guy.

    Like

    • GPOBookstore says:

      Judy- Thanks so much for your comments! I have to say, this was the most fun I’ve had writing a blog post in a while. It’s nice to read about just one of the many random acts of kindness performed every day by government employees.

      Like

  30. Patricia says:

    Awesome story. Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas.

    Like

  31. Hunter says:

    “Thank you!” to NORAD and the thousands of volunteers, both past and present, who help to keep us all believing in the Christmas Spirit, and Santa himself. My sons both track Santa’s every movement until they are “told” by none other than NORAD that they’d better get in to bed or risk upsetting the delicate schedule Santa has worked out. You represent the best that America has to offer its children: kindness, good will, and “guarding what matters most.” Merry Christmas to you all.

    Like

  32. Santa tracker says:

    [...] [1] NORAD Tracks Santa – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [2] Tracking ‘Big Red’: NORAD’s Secret Santa Mission … [3] NORAD Santa Tracker Keeps Track of St. Nick on… | Gather [4] Santa Tracker 2011 for Kids [...]

    Like

  33. yoetama says:

    Happy holiday, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year ! God Bless U all

    Like

  34. Pat Bartram says:

    What a great story! It does illustrate what America does best, and in such a charming way. Your nephews will be online tracking Santa this year, thanks to your story.
    A Magical Christmas to all

    Pat B.

    Like

  35. supplement says:

    I love the Santa tracking each year. Even though I am now 70 years old I still and always will believe in Santa. Yes, my name is Virginia

    Like

    • GPOBookstore says:

      Well, Virginia, I live in Virginia, so is that close enough? ;-) Who would have thought that NORAD would help keep the magic and belief alive for so many! It’s fun to read comments on NORAD’s Facebook page and other sites. One fan says “I love tracking Santa!!! I think I will do it even when my kids are grown LOL.” Another fan on NORAD’s Facebook page said, “Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, NORAD, for what you did to entertain my seven-year-old, who at least partly still “believes” because of your efforts. Watching NORAD track Santa is now our family tradition and we are grateful!” And a favorite comment I read was, “Thanks so much for what you do tracking Santa is a big part of Christmas eve in our house and really adds to the magic.” Even we adults need a little magic now and then, don’t you agree? Merry Christmas!

      Like

  36. Melissa DeLong says:

    Thank you for posting such a wonderful story!

    Like

  37. [...] Book Talk has a good writeup on the story also.  (Oh, and I am expecting a copy of “Guarding What You Value Most: North American [...]

    Like

  38. R. Crank says:

    I was born into a military family in 1953, so I remember “those simpler days.” I have to say that I’m agnostic-bordering-on-atheist and often say “bah humbug!” this time of year. Nonetheless, I found this bit of history quite enchanting. Who’d’a thunk it?!?!

    Thanks, NORAD, Santa Col., and Michele as well as GPO.

    Like

    • GPOBookstore says:

      Thanks so much! The “Santa Colonel” and NORAD definitely showed with their 56-year commitment that they really do care about “Guarding what matters most”: our kids! Happy Holidays! – Michele

      Like

  39. Felice says:

    Glad to hear my tax dollars are doing something I approve of, haha! What a wonderful heartwarming story!

    Like

  40. Larry Woller says:

    A wonderful article, always wondered how NORAD started tracking Santa Claus!!!… and so glad it is Santa and NOT missiles!!!..smile..
    You and yours have a safe and Merry Christmas and may all your presents be filled with love and happiness!!!..

    Like

  41. Water Damage Restoration says:

    Its awesome how tracking santa evolves with the advancement of technology! Love the story!

    Like

  42. Drako says:

    Great news from the U. S. Government Printing Office:

    “Deputy Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks, the first female to be appointed to that position, and Public Printer Bill Boarman…”

    Happy Xmas and Happy New year, GBT / GPO!!!

    Like

  43. armansyahardanis says:

    Radar, Ritual, Hi Tech, And Child Imagination……

    All the ideas in the world come from Child Imagination. When they grow-up much ideas erupt and screen among them, but we just a little to sort its. We need a radar that also hi tech to detect what would they want. By ritual-games like once who the people fans, they could imagine by role-play “NORAD’s Secret Santa Mission”. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2012….

    Like

  44. Trajan Rom says:

    …didn’t know this story…really lovely and quite interesting.
    By the way, thanks a lot for the always very interesting posts.
    Happy Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Like

    • GPOBookstore says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words. Everyone here at GPO really loved that story when I told them about it in the NORAD Celebrating 50 Years book, so I knew that I had to write about it this week. We all need a smile this time of year… Happy Holidays to you and yours!

      Like

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