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One-on-One with Paul Hommert

Paul Hommert. (ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL)
Paul Hommert. (ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL)
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Paul Hommert didn’t necessarily want to fly to the moon.

But he definitely wanted to understand what made such a feat humanly possible.

Like it did for so many kids of his generation, space travel captivated Hommert. But his wasn’t just a wide-eyed fixation with blasting out of the Earth’s atmosphere.


THE BASICS: Born Paul Hommert on July 22, 1950, in Flushing, N.Y.; Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Master of Science and Ph.D., both in mechanical engineering, from Purdue University; married to Elizabeth since Aug. 26, 1972; daughter Jennifer, 35; son Kevin, 34; Doberman named Coffee, miniature Pinschers named Mocha and Dolce.
POSITION: President and laboratories director at Sandia National Laboratories since 2010; formerly led Applied Physics Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory; former director of Research and Applied Science at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Hommert loves his dogs but is eager to instill some discipline in the mischievous lot – eventually.
“When I retire, I would really like to have the time to train a dog well. I’ve always had dogs, and I have the most unruly, poorly trained dogs, and it’s very frustrating,” he said. “One of these days, I’m convinced I can do a better job. I’ve always had the excuse that I don’t have the time.”

It was the details that piqued his interest.

A young Hommert would write letters directly to NASA, asking for specific information.

“I can’t even remember what I’d ask for – maybe what were the orbits going to be like for this next mission, whatever,” he said. “I was just completely fascinated by it.”

And when he had a chance as a teenager to tour a lunar module on his native Long Island, he walked away less an aspiring astronaut and more a budding engineer.

Hommert said he was “just fascinated by how did this all go together, how did this work, etcetera – maybe more so than the thrill of being a pilot.

“I don’t know if the pilot part ever fascinated me as much as the science part.”

He had always been a studious kid. His mother, who worked in retail, and his father, a New York City cop, gladly fostered his passion for learning, sending him to a private high school on Long Island.

Hommert never considered following his father into law enforcement, nor did his parents urge him to.

Hommert went on to get his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering. He came to Albuquerque in the mid-1970s to work for Sandia National Laboratories. His early days were spent on fossil energy projects, but he soon found himself overseeing large experiments and moving up the leadership ladder.

It turned out that was his niche.

“I sort of gradually came to a realization that while I wasn’t a bad engineer, I had a better knack for figuring out the big picture of things and where we ought to be going and that kind of thing. It gradually drew me towards leadership roles and, you know, one thing after another,” he said.

After gaining extensive leadership experience both inside and outside of Sandia – including a stint with the atomic weapons establishment in the United Kingdom – Hommert took over as the labs’ director in 2010.

But if he wasn’t currently overseeing a nuclear-weapons design and maintenance laboratory with more than 9,000 employees and an annual budget topping $2 billion, Hommert could see himself in an entirely different realm and in an entirely different role: Soccer coach.

“I always thought maybe I could’ve been a coach. There’s a lot of leadership skill issues there that translate in some ways to what I do,” he said.

Hommert grew up playing soccer long before it became the youth-sports juggernaut it is today. In fact, on Long Island in the mid-1960s there weren’t even organized high school teams, he said. He played on club teams, usually with immigrants and first-generation Americans who’d learned the game from their parents.

Aided by the stamina built up after years in track and cross country, Hommert “got to the point where I was a halfway-decent soccer player for an American kid not starting until 13.”

He continued playing during his undergraduate studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic University and he stayed active in the sport for the first several years he lived in New Mexico, coaching both youth and adult teams. He even led an under-16 boys team to the state title in the mid-1980s.

Hommert tended to approach the game with a sharp eye.

“I would say I was more of a tactician kind of coach – not a real strong disciplinarian but more disciplined in the way I felt the team should play the game,” he said. “I had some reasonable success. I could’ve enjoyed coaching.”

Raising his two children and taking on increasing responsibility at Sandia eventually curtailed his coaching but he remains an avid fan. While working in the U.K., he followed the Reading Football Club, attending their games on Saturday afternoons and relishing the local passion for the sport.

To this day, he spends his Saturday mornings watching televised games from England.

He just doesn’t get out on the pitch himself anymore.

“I played here probably into my early 40s and then you get frustrated. You can’t do any of the things you used to be able to do,” he said. “Now I just do what I did as a kid, I just jog.”

Q: What’s something you do in your job that might surprise people – and is not classified?

A: One of the things I truly enjoy is spending time with the employees of the labs. On Fridays, if I’m in town and it’s not too crazy, I get half-hour briefings from the staff on what they’re doing, just one-on-one, none of their management involved. I find that enormously rewarding.

Q: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to study or learn?

A: Languages. When I toured Europe, I tried to learn Italian. Desperately failed. I would love to be able to speak foreign languages. I used to speak German from high school, but never used it, so I lost it all.

Q: You played soccer with people from many other countries growing up – did you pick up any languages from that?

A: Only words you would not use in typical conversation. Not enough to be of particular use. (Laughs)

Q: What was the greatest thing about living in the United Kingdom?

A: The professional part was of course good, but when you’re in England, first of all, there’s just England itself, which we enjoyed. The culture, the history – just the country is beautiful. A lot of people go to England and go to London – which is a great city – but they miss the country. We enjoyed touring around the country. … The other thing is, from there, it’s a two-hour flight, you’re in Rome. It’s a two-hour train ride, you’re in Paris. Beth (his wife) would be able to take the train in the morning and shop in Brussels. … (Also) we went to Wimbledon every year we were there.

Q: Do you have any hidden talents?

A: I don’t think I have any hidden talents. I do make great omelets, but that’s it. I’ve been making omelets for 30 years. It’s not what you’d call a highly complex skill, but I make the omelets in the family.

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