In 1957, German theoretical physicist Burkhard Heim publicly outlined a new idea for spacecraft propulsion. It was based on his new theory of physics which successfully described Einstein’s theory of Relativity within the framework of Quantum Mechanics, and it married the two so effectively that he became an instant celebrity. Such a goal was long sought by Einstein himself, but never realized.

Heim’s ideas described a “hyperdrive” which would locally modify the constants of nature in such a way that a vehicle would be allowed to travel at immense speeds, possibly faster than the speed of light. Such a propulsion system could theoretically reach Mars in under five hours, and neighboring stars within a few months.

But shortly after he announced his theory, Heim went into isolation, and took his theories and formulas with him. It would be years before his theories again resurfaced, but when they did, they attracted the attention of NASA, the U.S. military, and the Department of Energy.

About thirteen years before announcing his theory, Burkhard Heim was permanently disabled during an accident while working as an explosives developer in World War 2. He was working on an explosive device when it detonated in his hands, severing both of his forearms and severely damaging his eyesight and hearing. After undergoing a series of operations, Heim distracted himself from the pain by intensely studying Einstein’s relativity theory. He registered at the University of Goettingen to study physics, and fulfilled his academic degree requirements with the help of companions.

Heim was able to continue his work in physics because he developed an extraordinarily accurate acoustic memory, able to recall formulas in exact detail once they had been recited to him. He became involved in physics research at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, and it was during this time that he made his Heim theory public, along with the hyperdrive propulsion system based upon it.

Einstein’s relativity theory describes space-time as having four dimensions: three dimensions of space (allowing for width, height, and depth) and one dimension of time. According to Relativity, any object will deform space in proportion to its mass, which causes gravity. This theory perfectly predicts the behavior of objects in space and time, so long as the object in question is not subatomic in scale. Quantum Mechanics describes the movements and interactions at tiny scales smaller than atoms, and this theory assumes that space is not deformed by mass, but rather it is in a static, fixed state. Each theory successfully describes its own sphere, but the two ideas seem to be in some contradiction. Einstein spent much of his later life unsuccessfully attempting to harmonize these theories as a “theory of everything.”

Heim’s attempt to heal this divide added four “sub-space” dimensions to Einstein’s four, making a total of eight. Later he decided that two of the dimensions were unnecessary, and removed them from the theory. His two sub-space dimensions coupled the forces of electromagnetism and gravity, which meant that theoretically, electromagnetic energy could be converted into gravity. This is the principle that his hyperdrive idea was based upon. The theory was so compelling and the math worked out so well that after Heim announced it, Wernher von Braun— the man leading the Saturn 5 rocket program— contacted Heim and asked him whether the Saturn 5 was a waste of money.

The theory propelled Heim into celebrity status in Germany, where he started appearing in magazines, in newspapers, and on television. But when he was unable to raise the money to develop the hyperdrive, he retreated into isolation to investigate the theories further.

Progress was slow given that Heim was rather possessive of his theory, particularly on the matter of inviting research from outside of Germany. Over the years he published a couple of papers whose formulas were able to calculate the masses of the fundamental particles with remarkable accuracy, filling a gap in conventional physics. He also produced several books on his theories, but they were lengthy, formidable volumes which were only available in German. In 1982 Heim helped to program his formulas into the German Electron Synchrotron computer, which verified their surprising accuracy, but because Heim had not yet confided in other theoretical physicists on the details of the mass formula derivation, the Electron Synchrotron results were not widely published.

In the 1980s Heim began to work with a theorist named Walter Dröscher who restored the two dimension which Heim had originally discarded from his theory. The result was the theory of “Heim-Dröscher space,” which was a mathematical description of an eight-dimensional universe. It describes gravity, anti-gravity (dark energy), electromagnetism, and quantum forces. It also describes the force which would allow hyperdrive to become a reality.

Burkhard Heim died in 2001, but Walter Dröscher continued the work, and teamed up with a physicist named Jochem Häuser to produce a paper proposing an experiment to test Heim’s quantum theory. The experiment calls for a magnetic field of extremely high intensity, but space propulsion researchers at Sandia National Laboratories think it might just be possible to perform the experiment using their “Z Machine” X-ray generator. They decided to wait for the math behind the theories to be better understood before volunteering the use of the expensive piece of equipment.

Because it is so complex and has had relatively little exposure, the Heim-Dröscher theory is still not well understood by most physicists. But its ability to calculate particle mass with uncanny accuracy has lent it a certain degree of credibility, because no theory before or since Heim’s can accomplish the same thing. If the theory is accurate, the hyperdrive propulsion field it allows may make a weekend trip to Mars a reality, and put the stars within our grasp.

Update: In the years since this article was written, the Heim-Dröscher theory has not held up well to scientific scrutiny. Still, when physicist John Reed translated some of Heim’s formulas into software, he found that it was able to derive particle masses as well as Heim had claimed. Whether this is evidence or coincidence is uncertain, but Dr. Reed concluded, “I’m more convinced now that there is really something to his theory. I don’t understand much of the math yet. It’s very complicated and different from anything I’m familiar with. I have a Ph.D. in physics so I know something about physics.”