A fat man in a red suit seems to have sparked a turf war between NASA and the Pentagon. When NASA announced yesterday that they planned to use their orbital tracking equipment to plot Santa's movements on Christmas Eve, they usurped a role traditionally fulfilled by NORAD, the military agency charged with defending North America from air attack. NORAD does not appear to be thrilled with the situation.
Sgt. Austin Carter, a spokesperson for NORAD, whose nuclear-attack-proof command center lies deep under Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, didn't seem amused by NASA's encroachment on the military's traditional Santa-tracking responsibilities. "Tracking Santa has been a NORAD program for 45 years," he said flatly. "I wasn't aware of NASA involvement."
However, NASA argues that it is the ideal agency for plotting the peregrinations of the jolly old elf. "With the shuttle and the [international space station], we have expertise in tracking high-speed vehicles." says Kyle Herring, a spokesperson at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
It's hard to say who's more qualified. Both agencies, for example, need to track space junk that can be a hazard for satellites and spacecraft. And NASA has a long tradition of aerospace research, so it should be able to handle even a suborbital Santa. It's unclear who anxious children will turn to for vital tracking information on Christmas Eve, but odds are that NORAD's efforts will be considered more important by the Administration. After all, NASA can only track St. Nick. Once the National Missile Defense system is deployed in 2004, the military will have the ability to intercept Santa and his reindeer--should that become necessary for national security.