Published: December 1, 2013
The radars are being tuned and the satellites synchronized as the North American Aerospace Defense Command prepares for its most prominent mission of the year.
The command expects more than 20 million Internet users and 100,000 callers to follow its Christmas Eve tracking of Santa Claus as he makes his way west around the globe.
"It's the biggest outreach program in the Department of Defense," said Stacy Knott, a spokeswoman for the binational command, which has been defending North America from enemy air and space threats since 1958.
The military has been tracking Santa since 1955, when department store advertisement in The Gazette asked kids to call Santa on Christmas Eve.
But the number in the paper inadvertently connected to NORAD's predecessor, Continental Air Defense Command.
Instead of hanging up on the kids, the sky-searching airmen turned to tracking Saint Nick, starting a tradition that has grown every year since.
Canadians joined the mission after the NORAD agreement was reached.
In the Internet age the Santa-tracking franchise has gone viral. The command's site NoradSanta.org, which rolls out for a new season Sunday, gets hits from almost every nation on Earth and now offers games and activities for kids eager for Santa's trek.
"Our website has a whole new creative design," Knott said. "It is more interactive and more accessible to more people."
One feature for 2013: Norad Santa.org will feature a new game every day through Dec. 24.
The command isn't shunning its telephone roots. Before dawn on Christmas Eve, trackers will be answering the phone at 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723). Included in each call is Santa's latest location and an admonition for children to head to bed before his arrival.
Even as the Pentagon works to cut $1 trillion from its coffers, the Santa mission continues. But not with tax money.
The command has corporate donors and volunteers to run the program.
In the air, Knott said, Santa's escorts over North America are pilots flying other missions with Operation Noble Eagle, designed to prevent another 9/11-style attack.
"Physically, we use the same things for the daily mission," Knott said, noting that CF-18 Canadian fighters and American F-16s will greet the sleigh.
One goal this year, Knott said, is to show the world that NORAD has more missions than its best-known work Dec. 24.
"We're trying to make sure we have a balance between showing the operational side of NORAD and how we track Santa," she said.