From Cybernetics to Systems Theory in the First Space Age

Observations on the Pilot Problem


  • Christian Girard



The first space age offers a remarkable context to scrutinise the inverse fates of cybernetics and systems theory in the 1960–70s, the latter taking the place of the former thanks to its operational effectiveness. Both fields appeared to tackle the pilot problem head-on, either to shoot a pilot down (cybernetics in World War II) – or to send some to the moon and back (systems engineering and management in the Apollo programme). The study of three US institutions (TRW, SDC and NASA) demonstrates an intense alliance between them, with a persistent focus on the issues of automation and systems thinking. A selection of written documents produced by each entity shows with utmost clarity their high degree of involvement in a post-cybernetics systemic approach. Incidentally, those analyses also show how the differences and similarities between old space and new space reveal themselves in light of the pilot problem. Overall, the pilot’s role reconfigured the man/machine assemblage as much as the pilot was reconfigured by that assemblage, with the critical assistance of computation.

Author Biography

Christian Girard

Christian Girard, architect, PhD in philosophy, is Emeritus Professor of Architecture (Paris). His interests cover design automation, digital architecture, aesthetics and epistemology. Co-founder of the Digital Knowledge department at Ecole d’Architecture Paris-Malaquais, he has published numerous texts of architecture theory and lectured at international conferences. He contributed to the Archilab platform as a critic and moderator and served as external examiner at the Bartlett and at the AA in London. With his experience as a practicing architect, Girard works on a wide range of topics where technics meet epistemology. A Paris native, he relocated to the Corsican landscape, combining critical thinking and writing with stargazing. He currently writes on issues of control and design, especially related to space exploration, from the 1960s to the present day.


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