Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity space plane is pictured during a May test flight. The craft took its fourth powered test flight Thursday in Mojave. Image Credit: AP

MOJAVE, California: A Virgin Galactic spacecraft is slated to launch from California on Thursday in a test mission that if successful would be the first commercial US human flight beyond the atmosphere since the end of America’s shuttle programme in 2011.

The flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.

Virgin’s aeroplane-like SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry six passengers and two pilots on a brief trip to what some agencies consider the edge of space, was set to take off Thursday morning from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, about 145km north of Los Angeles.

The high-altitude launch comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a US offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group.

A view from the edge of space is seen from Virgin Galactic's manned space tourism rocket plane SpaceShipTwo during a space test flight over Mojave, California, U.S. December 13, 2018. Image Credit: Reuters

“We’ve had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, told reporters during a facilities tour on Wednesday in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane.

While critics point to Branson’s unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin’s first commercial space trip with him on-board would happen “in months and not years.” Thursday’s test flight will have two pilots on-board, four Nasa research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger. More than 600 people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard Virgin’s suborbital missions, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000 (Dh918,250).

Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July.

Tickets will be offered ahead of the first commercial launch, and test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.

Other firms planning a variety of passenger spacecraft include Boeing Co, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch.

In September, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo, would be the company’s first passenger on a voyage around the moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo (R) launches for a suborbital test flight on December 13, 2018, in Mojave, California. Image Credit: AFP

Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla, said the Big Falcon Rocket could conduct its first orbital flights in two to three years as part of his grand plan to shuttle passengers to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars.

According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7km) by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aeroplane and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to at least 80.47km above Earth, high enough for passengers to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.

Bezos’ New Shepard has already flown to that altitude — an internationally recognised boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space known as the Karman line — though the Blue Origin trip did not carry humans.

Virgin’s Thursday launch likely will not go as high as the Karman line. Virgin’s pilots are aiming to soar 50 miles into the sky — the US military and Nasa’s definition of the edge of space and high enough to earn commercial astronaut wings by the US Federal Aviation Administration.