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Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is just months away from launching what he considers "the biggest Virgin company we've ever built." At 63, he's already founded multiple businesses worth billions, including a record label and a mobile company. But it's his foray into outer space with Virgin Galactic that has Mr. Branson excited. And though on this mid-October day he's sipping a latte in his suite in the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., his mind is far away in the Mojave Desert, where he had recently rallied hundreds of would-be astronauts to fly on Virgin Galactic's maiden voyages.

Those at the September gathering included almost half of the 650 people who have bought tickets to take flight on Mr. Branson's commercial spacecraft as early as 2014. (Current price: $250,000.) After nine years of fits and starts, Mr. Branson was in California showing off the spaceships that are now being built and tested. "This is the start of a new space era," he says. "This is not the endgame." But he admits there are skeptics of his grand plan to send tourists into space. "There are plenty of people who think I should be taken off by men in white jackets for saying it, but I really do actually believe it," he says.

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