It’s a Catch-22. The casual reader simply wants the story to get moving. The detail, though, is crucial, because bureaucratic battles are a clash of personalities and agendas, and a reader unfamiliar with those personalities and those agendas will never understand why one guy won and another lost. (By the way, this book is pretty much all about guys, an unavoidable fact given its time period and subject matter.)

A casual reader, too, might get lost on occasion. Take Sheehan’s explanation for the explosion, on the launching pad, of one of the first intermediate-range missiles: “The answer turned out to be not a complicated technological treatise, but once again an explanation as simple as the hot-box metal cupboards on the SAC bombers that had been destroying the vacuum tubes in the navigation and bomb release systems.” He’s referring to a logistical problem Bennie had worked out about a decade and three hundred pages earlier.

Schriever, we learn, was hardly immune to confusion himself, being obliged to deal with forty-two separate agencies and offices for each step of his program. Eliminating that approval process was one of his many accomplishments—and a typical triumph for a man who was driven to do things differently, to cut through it all. In the end, Sheehan’s story is a celebration of that great American icon, the loyal maverick. “Colonel, do you have any experience in test operations?” Schriever asks a man he’s interviewing. No, comes the reply. “Do you know anything about testing?” Again, no. “Good,” Schriever tells him. “You’re my director of tests.”

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Ryan Grim is a congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is a former staff reporter with Politico.com and Washington City Paper and is the author of the forthcoming book, This Is Your Country On Drugs.