COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Who says Santa Claus doesn't exist?
These days, the military personnel charged with being the eyes in the sky tracking objects in space are certainly acting like he does — and they've been joined on the Web in recent years by millions of believers.
Even teenage doubters have reason to pause and rethink what they've been told when they hear the North American Aerospace Defense Command is in charge of the annual mission to keep children informed of Santa's worldwide journey to their home's chimney or alternative entryway.
"They challenge it, but only to a point," said Senior Master Sgt. Sharon Ryder-Platts, 49, who for five years has been a Santa tracker, taking calls from those wanting to know the location of the jolliest of mythological figures. "I think there's a part of them that wonders, 'Well, if I'm talking to a military organization doing this ... then just maybe ... "'
But if Santa Claus is indeed a myth, you wouldn't know it from talking to the NORAD personnel.
"The FAA has already cleared him through to U.S. air space," said Maj. Brian Martin, noting that Santa himself was expected for a briefing Tuesday at NORAD's tracking headquarters at Colorado Springs' Peterson Air Force Base.
And what happens if they lose track of Santa?
"We don't," Martin said without missing a beat. "We're NORAD. We don't lose track of Santa. We have NORAD Santa cams all over the world."
The conversation soon turned to when exactly Santa Claus would arrive at children's homes.
"I think around 9 p.m. or 10:30 p.m., right? That's what they're saying?" said Capt. Timothy Lundberg as he arranged tables in one of two conference rooms where phone calls and e-mails will be answered starting at 2 a.m. Mountain time Christmas Eve. Pine garlands lined the middle of the tables, and green, red and silver spheres hung over the phones.
"He plans this ahead. It's a yearlong endeavor, obviously," Lundberg continued, before being told that Santa arrives at children's houses only when they fall asleep. "I stand corrected," Lundberg said.
NORAD's holiday tradition can by traced to 1955, when a Colorado Springs newspaper printed a Sears Roebuck ad telling children of a phone number to talk to Santa. The number for the "Santa hot line" was one digit off, and instead the first child to get through got the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.
Col. Harry W. Shoup answered.
Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, said her dad, now 91, was surprised to hear that the little voice on the other end thought he was Santa.
"Dad thought, 'What the heck? This must be some kind of code,"' said Van Keuren, 59.
Shoup, whose daughter said was "just a nut about Christmas," didn't want to break the boy's heart, so he sounded a booming "Ho, ho, ho!" and pretended to be Santa Claus.
Enough calls followed that Shoup assigned an officer to answer them while the problem was fixed. But Shoup and the staff he was directing to "locate" Santa on radar ended up embracing the idea. NORAD picked up the tradition when it was formed 50 years ago.
"If we didn't do it, truly I don't know who else would track Santa," said Maj. Stacia Reddish.
The task that began with no computers and only a 60-by-80-foot glass map of North America has evolved to include two big screens on a wall showing the world and information on each of the countries Santa Claus is visiting. Ryder-Platts remembers that just five years ago, a thumb tack on a map pinpointed Santa's location.
With their Web site's 1997 launch, the program took off, Reddish said.
Now, curious children — and their parents — can follow Santa's path online with a Google two-dimensional map or in 3D using Google Earth, where he will be seen flying through different landscapes in his sleigh, reindeer and all, starting with his launch from the North Pole at 2 a.m. Mountain time Dec. 24. The site will be updated and calls will be taken until 2 a.m. Christmas Day.
There's even a feature to see his location on a cell phone, and high-tech "Santa cams" placed around the world in 24 landmarks.
NORAD officials are hesitant to list all the locations with certainty.
"Historically, Santa has loved the Great Wall of China. He loves the (Space) Needle in Seattle. He of course loves the Eiffel Tower," Reddish said. "But his path is completely unpredictable, so we won't know."
Last year, NORAD's Santa tracking center answered 94,000 calls from around the world — they have translators on site — and responded to 10,000 e-mails, which was a fraction of what they received. About 10.6 million unique visitors went to their Web site, which can be viewed in seven languages — English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese.
But despite the explosion of technology, the telephone is still a staple in the mission to tell children Santa's location.
Ryder-Platts, who has a 17-year-old son, said taking calls from children every year helps her keep her Christmas spirit.
"For someone like myself, my son is older, you know it just keeps you in touch with the spirit of Santa Claus," she said. "I miss out on that at home so this keeps me close to Santa. I believe! It keeps me in touch with other believers."
On the Net:
To call the Santa Operations Center: 1-877-446-6723, or from Colorado Springs or overseas: 719-556-5211