A visit to NORAD's Santa Tracking facility

Few things in this world will reaffirm your holiday spirit faster than watching a dozen or so uniformed service people cover a room in Christmas wrapping. Also on that short list, it so happens, is spotting one of the aforementioned troops hand-feed an overzealous and noticeably plump squirrel who's anxiously scratching on the door to get in. It's a strangely Snow White-esque moment that unfolds minutes after we set up our gear in the conference room of the Leadership Development Center -- a drab, unassuming office space in the middle of Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base that serves as a training facility for 11 months out of the year. But now, in early December, there's a transformation occurring, as men and women in various shades of camouflage paper the space with Christmas spirit in record time.

For one month a year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) converts this area into holiday central for NORAD's Santa Tracker, a half-century-old program that has become a thing of legend -- a curious juxtaposition of warfare preparedness and storybook magic. It's one that, somehow fittingly, is rooted in a mistake -- a phone number misprinted in a 1955 Sears catalog, prompting local children to call Santa's "private number." Those calls from excited boys and girls were routed, the legend goes, to the big red phone in the war room of NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), where quick-thinking Col. Harry Shoup asked his troops to play along. Now, 57 years later, it's a massive undertaking, as volunteers in military garb and Santa hats answer calls from children in hundreds of countries.

The organization is proud of this history -- and is certainly happy with the yearly PR that the annual program brings to NORAD, which is perhaps better known for its association with nearby Cheyenne Mountain, a nuclear bunker that could just as ably provide the setting for some comic book supervillain's lair. Should a gadget blog visit the space, however, the organization isn't particularly forthcoming with details about the actual tracking that occurs on Christmas Eve. Instead, they choose to shroud the whole process in mystery even with such high-profile partners as Microsoft, which has offered up its Bing Maps software for the program.

What we have been able to gather, however, is that much of the process hinges on the illuminated facial feature of one key player. "Rudolph's nose gives a great signature," Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis tells us during an interview. He waves away some specifics in typical military fashion, but does helpfully shed a bit more information on the whole thing. "Prior to the 24th, we do make some communication with Santa," he explains, adding that NORAD "position[s] Santa Cams throughout the world" and has a number of "pilots on standby" -- assuring safe passage for the holiday mascot.

Regardless of how the military ultimately obtains that information, however, the program clearly provides some respite from the stresses of serving in uniform. Those involved relish the opportunity to put smiles on the faces of children all over the world. As far as what any of us are getting for the holiday, however, that information is strictly classified.

This segment originally appeared in episode 39 of The Engadget Show.

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A visit to NORAD's Santa-tracking facility (video)