NASA is pulling out of the Santa-tracking business. It's unclear whether the decision was made because of national security concerns or to avert a prolonged turf war with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which has traditionally tracked Santa. But it's certain that one fewer government agency is keeping an eye on the jolly old elf this year.
NORAD, the agency responsible for the United States' air defenses, has been tracking Santa Claus's Christmas Eve peregrinations for nearly half a century. So last year, when NASA also tasked its personnel with monitoring Mr. Kringle, border skirmishes seemed imminent (ScienceNOW, 20 December 2002). Worse, the two agency's tracks disagreed, raising questions about the quality of the nation's Santa-tracking capability (ScienceNOW, 2 January).
Now, the turf war is apparently over. "We are not doing Santa tracking again this year," says John Petty, a spokesperson at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I'm not quite sure why." NORAD plans to track Santa as always. Observers speculate that the military agency prevailed because it's better poised to intercept Santa if necessary for national security purposes.
The security stakes are, indeed, high. Calculations of Santa's speed on Christmas Eve show that, to make its worldwide deliveries in a single night, Santa's sleigh must fly faster than a million meters a second. In the event of a collision, a sleigh moving that fast packs more energy than the equivalent of 200 megatons of TNT, or a dozen Hiroshima blasts.
Nevertheless, the Department of Transportation (DOT) sees little cause for concern. According to a DOT press release last week, Santa admitted that he did not have a federal air marshal on board when asking for leave to fly over U.S. territory. But the agency granted Mr. Claus's request to fly on Christmas Eve anyway. Said DOT secretary Norman Mineta, "it appears that a grant of the applicant's request is in the highest public interest."