Close to 410 well-heeled individuals including six of Indian origin have signed up with Virgin Galactic — the world's first commercial spaceline — for the ambitious sub-orbital space tourism flight.

“Among 410 firm commitments, there are six Indians who made bookings. One of them lives permanently in India, while the others (who are of Indian origin) reside in the UK and the US. There are several thousands who have said that they would like to go some day,” Mr Stephen Attenborough, Commercial Director at Virgin Galactic told Business Line on the sidelines of India Leadership Forum event here.

A seat in Virgin's commercial spacecraft — a dream project of Virgin group founder Sir Richard Branson — can set tourists back by $200,000. But for some, that may be a small price to pay for venturing into space. Galactic's new vehicles are being built to carry six customers on sub-orbital space flights, allowing an out-of-the-seat zero gravity experience and offering astounding views of the planet from the space.

“The response is amazing. Last November, we had a new astronaut sign up every day of the month…These people are the early adopters and pioneers of a new industry that will be flying first….Even today the number of bookings are changing rapidly…Of course, to be able to commit that money early and then wait for the flight means that clearly we are talking to people who are in a fortunate position of having that sort of money to spare,” said Mr Attenborough.

While he did not reveal the identity of the wannabe astronauts, including the Indians, Mr Attenborough said they were from diverse profiles. “It is very difficult to connect them other than the fact that they all have a shared desire to experience space as quickly as they can. They come from 45 countries, both men and women,” he said. Although he said he would like to start commercial operations by end of 2012 or beginning of 2013, he hesitated to commit to a timeline for the maiden commercial flight. “Space is intrinsically a dangerous environment, taking people to space is not easy. Government agencies have not found it that easy to do. So, as a private company wanting to do it more safely or cheaply becomes tough. We have passed several milestones but we have quite a few milestones to go,” said Mr Attenborough..

“We have gone through proving technology and prototype in 2004. We are past the stage of feasibility study. We have gone through design and manufacturing. But there are ambitious test flights to go through. We will never bite more than we can chew because we need to understand carefully how they (flights) perform in every condition…that is how we can make them safe,” he added.