ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A key figure in the development of New Mexico’s Spaceport America has died.

Lonnie Sumpter, a visionary who was a vigorous, long-time supporter of space development within the state, died Feb. 13. He was 58. At the time of his death he was executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

“Lonnie was a true public servant and dedicated the last 15 years of his life to building a new space industry in New Mexico,” New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said in a statement about Sumpter’s death. “As executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority he was a pioneer in his profession and a valued member of my administration. ”

New Mexico’s Spaceport America is to be built 48 kilometers (30 miles) east of Truth or Consequences and 72 kilometers north of Las Cruces. It is expected to cost a total of some $225 million to construct. It is scheduled to become the home base of operations for Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital spaceliner operations flying under the Virgin Galactic flag.

As the world’s first “purpose-built” spaceport, the sprawling complex is also a business-oriented spaceport, Sumpter told attendees of the 2nd International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight, held in Las Cruces last October.

Sumpter took pride in his work on Spaceport America, underscoring the road ahead in obtaining a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s space transportation office.

Spaceport America is a phased construction project, Sumpter explained at the gathering. During its build-up, limited launch operations will be undertaken, he said.

Once on-line in 2010, Spaceport America “will be well on its way, we think, to becoming the busiest space launch facility in the world,” Sumpter explained.

Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and cabinet secretary of economic development for the state noted that Sumpter “set the bar very, very high for all of those who will follow.”

“As we move forward, we will keep Lonnie in our thoughts and honor his memory with the success of the spaceport, which was his dream from the very start,” Homans said in a statement.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...