p>To get you in the holiday spirit, we offer a story about how a simple mistake led to a Yuletide tradition carried on by one of the most technologically sophisticated centers on earth. This year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its NORAD Tracks Santa project. Why does the joint Canadian-American air defense operation monitor the flight of a "jolly old elf" on his annual mission to bring gifts to the world's children? Well, it's not because he poses a security threat to the continent.

Technically, Santa Claus violates North American airspace on a regular basis once a year. He files no flight plan. He operates an unregistered vehicle. He lacks a pilot's license. He travels at excessive speed. He touches down and takes off from millions of locations without the slightest permission from any air-traffic control authority. And he knows when you are sleeping and knows when you're awake. All of which might make for some suspicion that this highly secretive individual might be up to something worthy of the attention of NORAD.

The truth of the matter is very different, though, of course. NORAD found itself in the Santa-tracking business purely by accident. The real story begins in 1955 with a typo in a newspaper ad. A Sears Roebuck and Co. store in Colorado Springs, Colo., placed an ad in a local paper with a phone number for children to call Santa on a special hotline. Unfortunately for Sears, but fortunately for children ever since, the number was mistyped. Instead of reaching a phone at Santa's workshop, callers were put in touch with the operations desk of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) at Cheyenne Mountain, one of the most sensitive control centers of the Cold War.

The matter might have simply led to an investigation by the U.S. Air Force were it not for the fact that it was December 24th and the mistaken callers were all children from the nearby town. Using judicious command discretion, CONAD Director of Operations Col. Harry Shoup decided to order his staff to check their radar displays to see if there was any indication that Santa was making his way down from the North Pole and advise the children accordingly. And in the twinkle of a merry eye, a tradition was born.

The "job" of tracking Santa's progress on his annual flight was inherited by NORAD in 1958, when Canada and the United States joined forces to monitor the skies above North America. Today, the project has become a holiday hallmark.

"I think in the initial stages, back in the 50s and 60s, it was just a novelty kind of thing," said Master Sgt. John Tomassi, Santa Tracking Operations co-director, in a recent press release.

"We've recognized now that people have taken this program as a tradition, and what we can do is educate them," Tomassi continued. "We use the satellites to track Santa, we use the radar, we use jet fighters, but all of those exact same things are what we use to monitor the aerospace of North America. We think of it as a geography lesson, because the different places that Santa visits or sightings that we have, a lot of people haven't heard of. If we can get some children to go and look at a map to find out where Timbuktu is, or where India is, or Pakistan, or wherever, then we feel all the better for that."

With a presence on the Internet in six languages and international television coverage by the media, NORAD Tracks Santa is also a technological wonder. Handled completely on a voluntary basis and funded by charitable donation, the project gets over 900 million hits to its website, 35 000 email messages, and 55 000 phone calls. Technological assistance is provided by Akamai, America Online, Analytical Graphics, ClearCube, ICG Communications, MCI, Windows Live Local, and other providers.

NORAD Tracks Santa is made possible by the people of Cheyenne Mountain and Peterson Air Force Base, who staff the Santa Tracking Operations Center. Its phone numbers—and these are correct—are 877-446-6723 (toll-free in the United States) and 719-474-2111. In two days, they will assemble a small army (make that air force) to keep us all posted on the whereabouts of a most remarkable fellow.

It's a noble effort, in every way.

Happy holidays to all.


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