Crews at the North American Aerospace Defense Command are ready for their biggest annual mission: tracking an elusive target that propels a bearded senior citizen at mind-boggling speed for a 24-hour intercontinental race that spans the planet.

The command, which protects the nation from incoming missiles, enemy bombers and terrorist hijackings, is used to the daily grind of watching slower targets. Santa Claus, though, poses a special problem.

“The good news is we are well suited for doing this,” said Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, a veteran fighter pilot with 168 hours of combat time who now leads NORAD and its legion of Santa trackers.

The command has radars set up around the continent for its regular job and brings in a few more around the planet for the Christmas Eve mission.

Click here to track Santa's route.

Santa’s speed is like nothing O’Shaughnessy faced at the controls of his F-16 fighter.

To hit every household on Earth during the 24-hour trip, Santa must make 19,675 stops every second.

If you account for time to consume milk and cookies, that jolly old elf could easily exceed the 186,000 miles-per-second speed of light between stops. O’Shaughnessy’s F-16 topped out at a pedestrian 1,500 mph on full afterburner that’s less than half a mile per second.

Cornell University astrophysicist David Rothstein, who apparently does not believe in Santa Claus, claims it is impossible to travel that quickly.

“This has actually been verified by experiments, and it has been shown that nothing moves faster than the speed of light,” the Grinch-like professor wrote on the university’s website.

But the general says Santa isn’t bound by the laws of physics, such as Einstein’s alleged theory of special relativity. And Santa is polite enough to allow the command’s American and Canadian fighters to accompany him at brief intervals.

The CF-18 Hornets and F-22 Raptors normally rule the skies, but not when Santa Claus is coming to town, the general said.

“We actually have to ask Santa to slow down,” O’Shaughnessy said.

Tracking Santa means calling up the reserves. Christmas Eve dawns at the international dateline — that’s early Sunday here.

So, the trackers — all volunteers — roll into Peterson Air Force Base at the crack of dawn to help children across the globe ascertain Santa’s exact location.

The tracking mission began in 1955 with a mistake published prominently in The Gazette. An advertisement from a downtown department store offered children the chance to call Santa on Christmas Eve. But the number pushed for the North Pole was incorrect. Instead of Santa, children got Col. Harry Shoup, who was watching for an attack in a military command center.

“He could have taken that call and said you have a wrong number,” O’Shaughnessy said. But the colonel took a different route and began forwarding the calls to his radar operators.

“He provided an opportunity to show the goodness of some folks we have working for the military,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The command’s Christmas Eve job has grown immeasurably. Over the holiday season, millions of people visit NORAD’s website dedicated to the mission: noradsanta.org.

Contributors help the command set up a huge phone bank at Peterson where volunteers, military and civilian, spend 24 hours answering phone calls to the tracking hotline: 1-877-446-6723. The calls come from tens of thousands of children from around the planet.

The wrong number has turned into the Pentagon’s single largest outreach program.

“It has an audience around the world,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The general said it also gives NORAD troops a way to show the public their work outside the usual secrecy. The inner workings of the command’s intelligence and surveillance programs are usually highly classified.

Santa has some secrets, too, the general said.

The elf may deliver presents, but he hasn’t delivered blueprints for his physics-defying sleigh.

“That technology in the sleigh would be great technology to have,” the general said, dreaming of high mach numbers rather than sugar plums.

But, in its mission to follow Santa, NORAD has finally cracked the code to overcome his blinding speed and stealth, O’Shaughnessy confided.

The key was following the leader of those eight reindeer. The one guiding the sleigh actually shows up on Defense Support Program and Space-based Infrared satellites usually used to track the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles.

“Fortunately for us, Rudolph has a very bright red nose,” he said.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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