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Since 1955, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has tracked Santa

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

This weekend, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, turns on its Santa tracker. That's a system that they say tracks jolly old St. Nick on his Christmas rounds, marking his coordinates in real time. We called up the U.S. Air Force official in charge of the operation. He's Major General Parker Wright. I asked him to take us back - way back to 1955, the year the tradition got started.

PARKER WRIGHT: It was actually by accident. There was a local department store that ran an ad in the newspaper, and they misprinted the Santa hotline number. And actually, the phone line they printed was for one of our predecessor organizations, the Continental Air Defense Command. And so the phone rang on Christmas Eve. It was answered by Air Force Colonel Shoup, and he realized the mistake had been made. And he played along 'cause he didn't want to disappoint the kids who had called in. And so before you knew it, he had the entire watch floor answering the phones from across Colorado Springs. And so that's how the tradition began. Once the organization became NORAD, we sort of adopted that mission. It's been uninterrupted for 67 years.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, General, I know that as NORAD's director of intelligence, that there are certain areas that you cannot go with NPR. But I'm wondering, I mean, what sort of technology does the Air Force use in order to pinpoint an object the size of, for example, a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer traveling more rapid than eagles, as I understand it?

WRIGHT: Yeah, well, I'll tell you, we're helped out a lot by Rudolph and his red nose. When Santa takes off and Rudolph's the lead there with the red nose, we're able to pick him up using a series of infrared satellites that are orbiting the Earth some 22,000 miles above the Earth. And so the heat signature that Rudolph's nose puts off, we're able to detect using the satellite.

MARTÍNEZ: General, do we know the power source of Rudolph's nose?

WRIGHT: I'll tell you, we don't know what illuminates Rudolph's nose, although I think it's probably good holiday cheer. I'll tell you, Santa has a lot of secrets. You know, as an intelligence officer, I'm always very intrigued about learning some of his secrets. What we do know is that he's able to travel faster than the speed of light, right? He's able to visit all the kid's towns and faster than you'd think. So there's some form of Christmas magic that's going on there. But we haven't been able to pinpoint exactly his source. I'd love to know what it is.

MARTÍNEZ: Can you confirm, though, General, that his eyes twinkle and his dimples are merry?

WRIGHT: I can confirm that. You know, when our pilots intercept Santa and his sleigh, they're able to wave and waggle the wings, and Santa knows we're there. And we know that he appreciates what we're able to provide for him on Christmas Eve. You mentioned the twinkle in his eye. And I would tell you that as he visits the house, you know, traditionally folks will leave out cookies and milk for him. I'll tell you, he also likes to eat healthy from time to time. And so healthy snacks, like, left behind for Santa aren't a bad idea either.

MARTÍNEZ: That's U.S. Air Force Major General Parker Wright, director of intelligence and information for North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command, both headquartered at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado. General, thanks.

WRIGHT: Hey, thanks for your time. Glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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