12/24/2010 08:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

NORAD Readies to Track Santa

One of the most interesting and exciting assignments during my U.S. Air Force career was my tour of duty at the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) complex some 1,400 feet beneath granite Cheyenne Mountain, south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the height of the Cold War.

I still remember walking or busing through the long tunnel, entering the "vault," then waiting for the 25-ton steel blast door to close behind me and hoping that the other 25-ton blast door (the one leading to the underground complex) would open -- being claustrophobic didn't help. You see, in those days, we were still having some "technical problems" with the doors. However, everything else in what has been called "America's Fortress" -- perhaps the most hardened, secure and survivable command and control center on the planet -- was working impeccably to protect North America from a space, air, or ballistic missile attack.

And, once the other door opened, I never ceased to be amazed at the sheer magnitude, complexity and science-fiction nature of the complex: huge, especially built and protected buildings perched on giant springs designed to survive a nuclear attack (and its effects, including EMP -- electromagnetic pulse) or major earthquake; its own independent and survivable power, air conditioning, water, fuel, medical, etc., systems; and rooms and rooms jam-packed with the most sophisticated, reliable and powerful computer and communications systems in the world.

Because of the changing and evolving threats to our national security, some of the missions and organizations have also changed and evolved in Cheyenne Mountain. However, one mission -- let us call it a "tradition" -- remains unchanged.

For more than 50 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa's flight.

The story goes that, in 1955, a Colorado-Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement for children to call Santa misprinted the telephone number. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief's operations "hotline." The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and the tradition was born.

Since that time, NORAD men, women, family and friends have selflessly volunteered their time to personally respond to phone calls and emails from children all around the world. In addition, NORAD now tracks Santa using the internet. Millions of people who want to know Santa's whereabouts now visit the NORAD Tracks Santa website.

NORAD tells us that all the preparations for this year are in place, and that Santa's elves have been busier than usual this year preparing. Visit Santa's Village to see what's been going on, and join in on the fun!

Finally, that NORAD has teamed up with a local school district to bring more holiday cheer.

So, please take your children, grandchildren -- yourself -- to NORAD's Santa's site and learn more about one of NORAD's most interesting missions.