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Santa in their sights

The military command in charge of defending North America from aerial threats is beefing up its volunteer corps to keep an eye out for Santa Claus this year – and they’re expecting to get a billion Internet hits from wee ones around the world.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, is offering a its traditional Santa-tracking Web site with lots of extra goodies. You can also check out NASA's Santa site, which takes advantage of the same software that helps you watch orbiting probes such as the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the international space station and shuttle.

NORAD's Santa role goes back to the days before NORAD itself technically existed. By now, the tale is almost as well-known as "The Night Before Christmas": how a wrong number was printed in a Colorado Springs newspaper ad, with the result that phone calls to Santa rang instead at the headquarters of CONAD, the predecessor to NORAD. Since that Christmas Eve of 1955, the air command has run a Santa hotline on a volunteer basis.

In 1997, NORAD's Santa operation entered the Internet era and nearly brought down the computer servers devoted to the effort (fortunately, there was no effect on NORAD's "real job"). Back then, the setup could barely handle a million hits - but each year, with the help of NORAD's corporate partners, the system has been upgraded to cope with a flood of seasonal Internet traffic and e-mails.

NoradSanta.com kicked off its holiday season last Friday, and expects to handle more than a billion hits from more than 200 countries and territories. In recent years, the Web traffic capacity has been able to keep up with ever-rising demand, said NORAD's program coordinator, Master Sgt. Tony Hill. But the phone banks and e-mail handling capacity were in need of a significant boost.

"We had 500,000 people who tried to get through last year, but only 52,000 were actually able to get through," Hill told me. "The most common type of call we get is from kids wanting to know where Santa is, and when he's going to be in their town."

This year, Hill said the operation will bring in 800 volunteers for holiday phone duty, compared with 550 last year. He said the number of phone lines has been raised from 35 to 70, and the number of computers set aside for handling e-mail is going up from 12 to 20. Almost 100,000 e-mails were received from children last year, according to last week's NORAD news release.

Christmas Eve is crunch time for the NoradSanta operation, but while the kids are working on their gift lists, they can click onto the Web site to watch preview videos, learn about the history of the program, do a puzzle, download coloring pages and maps, and even listen to holiday music from the U.S. Air Force Academy Band and the Naden Band of Maritime Forces Pacific of the Canadian Navy.

The Web site has an international flavor not only because NORAD is a U.S.-Canadian organization, but also because it's a public service with a worldwide clientele. Information is posted in English and French as well as German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

Starting at 4 a.m. ET Christmas Eve, NoradSanta.com will be providing minute-by-minute updates on Santa's travels. The gee-whiz effect will be provided by Analytical Graphics' satellite visualization software (which has applications far more serious than tracking the Jolly Old Elf).

Hill, who is in the midst of his first season as Santa-tracking program coordinator, can hardly wait. "The volunteers are calling every day," he said. "They're getting pretty excited, and I'm getting excited too."

For the nitty-gritty behind St. Nick's technical feats, Roger Highfield's look at the science of Santa Claus is a holiday classic. This engineering analysis, and this rebuttal, delve more deeply into the debate.