Steve Altes ’84, SM ’86, SM ’86, an aerospace engineer turned comedic writer, hopes to bring MIT’s legendary hacking tradition new fame in Geeks and Greeks, a graphic novel inspired by his campus adventures. “The story embodies everything I love about nerds—their brilliance, creativity, irreverence, and endearing quirkiness,” he says.
Altes, who grew up near Syracuse, has admired hacks since he arrived at MIT and saw the Sheraton Boston sign altered to read simply “ATO” (though he joined Sigma Phi Epsilon). He earned three degrees at the Institute—two in aerospace engineering and one in public policy. His master’s thesis on the feasibility of an aerospace airplane was reviewed in the New York Review of Books. “My literary career peaked at age 24,” he quips.
After MIT, Altes worked at Orbital Sciences in Virginia on the Pegasus air-launched space booster. For that work, he was named a co-recipient of the National Medal of Technology in 1990. “Again, I knew it was going to be downhill from there,” he says. Soon after, he left engineering for show business.
Altes nabbed a few stunt jobs on film sets—including Die Hard with a Vengeance, in which he had to leap from the roof of one moving tractor-trailer to another. “I loved the freewheeling aspect of entertainment,” he says.
And then he had an idea for a movie. “The hacks and hijinks I saw, participated in, or heard about at MIT were mind-boggling,” he says. He wrote a screenplay that was optioned by writer and producer Dottie Zicklin ’86, who created the sitcom Dharma & Greg.
Although that film was not made, Altes kept writing, publishing essays in 45 magazines and newspapers, authoring two business humor books, and providing commentary for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Us Weekly’s “Fashion Police.”
Two years ago he decided that a graphic novel would be the ideal medium for his hack story. He raised $40,000 on Kickstarter and hired an artist to illustrate the book. “The support I got from the MIT alumni community has been amazing,” he says. “I hope Geeks and Greeks gets people excited about engineering and especially MIT. If you’re a bright high school student and want to be where the most creative and dynamic people are, you’re going to want to go to MIT.”
Altes and his wife, actress Diana Jellinek, live in Valencia, California, with their two young sons. Geeks and Greeks will be released in June.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.