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Originally published April 21, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified April 21, 2012 at 10:29 PM

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Influential trio in space venture; the big Bellevue deal that wasn't; champion barista worries about cafés

Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, filmmaker James Cameron and Google founder Larry Page are joining forces in a new space endeavor that will be unveiled in Seattle Tuesday — but until then, no one is saying exactly what all these heavy hitters are up to.

By Seattle Times staff

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Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, filmmaker James Cameron and Google founder Larry Page are joining forces in a space endeavor that will be unveiled in Seattle Tuesday — but until then, no one is saying exactly what all these heavy hitters are up to.

The secrecy hasn't kept tech commentators from speculating about the mission, which was no doubt the goal of last week's teasing media release from something called Planetary Resources.

The company describes itself as an innovative startup that will "overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP."

Several observers are guessing that translates into mining valuable minerals from asteroids.

The pedigrees of the company's co-founders support that possibility. Peter Diamandis launched the X-Prize competitions that offer rewards for innovations in spaceflight and other technology. Eric Anderson is chairman of Space Adventures, a space-tourism firm that brokers pricey visits to the international space station for uber-wealthy clients — including Simonyi, who made the trip twice.

Chris Lewicki, former manager of NASA's Mars missions, is listed as the president and chief engineer.

In a recent interview with Forbes, Diamandis said he's harbored the dream of asteroid mining since he was a child.

Asteroids are appealing targets because they contain higher concentrations of gold, platinum and other metals than found in terrestrial deposits.

Some of the chunks of space rock also orbit close to the Earth, which would make them relatively easy to get to.

But Forbes blogger Alex Knapp is not convinced the time is ripe for such an ambitious goal. He estimates it would take at least 30 years to develop the technology and reach the point of turning a profit.

His guess is that the company's short-term focus will be on orbital solar panels that would absorb solar radiation and — somehow — beam the energy down to Earth.

Boeing studied that idea 30 years ago, said University of Washington astronomer Don Brownlee.

As the chief scientist for NASA's Stardust mission to collect comet dust, Brownlee knows how expensive it is to do anything in space.

Even the combined fortunes of several billionaires might not be enough, he cautioned.

"It costs $10,000 a kilogram to put something in space, and it costs a lot more to bring it back," he said. "It would have to be something of incredible value."

Tuesday's news conference is set for 10:30 a.m. at the Museum of Flight, and will be streamed live online at http://www.museumofflight.org .

— Sandi Doughton, sdoughton@seattletimes.com

The big Bellevue

real-estate deal

that wasn't

A year ago this month, Thor Equities, a New York real-estate investment firm, put out a media release announcing it was buying the Bellevue Galleria, a 204,000-square-foot retail and office center in Bellevue's downtown.

Thor even disclosed the price — $87.5 million — a detail investors often are reluctant to reveal.

"We see enormous potential in this market and in this property in particular," Thor CEO Joe Sitt proclaimed.

The deal seemed like a winner for seller RP Realty Partners, of Los Angeles, which had bought the three-story complex for $53.4 million in 2007, converted its movie theaters to office space, and signed Bungie, developer of the monster Halo video-game franchise, to a long-term lease.

The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, as well as this newspaper, dutifully reported the sale.

There was just one problem: It never closed.

RP still owns the Galleria, and has put it up for sale again for an undisclosed price.

Offers were due March 30, according to the listing from CBRE. It says the Galleria is 99 percent leased, and there's potential to build another 750,000 square feet on the property, on 106th Avenue Northeast between Northeast Fourth and Sixth streets.

Eastside broker Tom Bohman represented RP in landing Bungie in 2009 when he was with Cushman & Wakefield. He says he heard the Thor-RP deal fell through sometime last fall.

"They had some issue come up," Bohman says.

But he doesn't know what it was.

What happened? RP didn't return an email or phone call. Thor said it would get back to us, but never did.

— Eric Pryne, epryne@seattletimes.com

Barista champ

is worried about

survival of cafés

Although Starbucks has become a model of efficiency, making drinks with push-button espresso machines and turning record profits, independent coffee shops don't have it so easy, says London roaster and former world barista champion James Hoffmann.

"Most quality focused, independent cafés aren't making any money," he told several hundred coffee-industry movers and shakers at a symposium hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Portland last week.

Hoffmann, the owner of Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London, also had a warning: Single-serve coffee machines, such as K-cups, are going to gut the independent coffee business if something doesn't change.

The fact that their espresso tastes better will not keep the independents afloat, Hoffmann said.

"To this day, vinyl sounds better than digital media, but how's that working out for them?"

He thinks cafés need to get away from the standard quick-service model and be more creative.

Hoffmann doesn't like it when industry insiders find fault with unique models, such as that of fellow world barista champion Gwilym Davies, who offers an extremely scaled-back menu at his Prufrock Coffee in London — just espresso and espresso with milk.

Maybe that wouldn't work for everyone, Hoffmann said, but each place could offer its own creative take on coffee providing, it's hoped, customers with more coffee-shop variety and coffee entrepreneurs with more money.

— Melissa Allison, mallison@seattletimes.com

Comments? Send them

to Rami Grunbaum:

rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

or 206-464-8541.

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