Let's say half the money spent to get to orbit or beyond is government money. I really have no idea of the actual percentage. Of the $800m that SpaceX has spent in nine years, $300m came from the government. So perhaps I'm not too far off. Could space exploration and development happen if there was no government investment?
I hear the gasps. Did someone just faint?
The government is a fickled beast and tying your business to it can be haphazard. The I.S.S. may be abandoned before the end of this year. Where does that leave the $1.6b COTS contract awarded to SpaceX to resupply?
The fact is the government has no money and never did. All they do is redistribute the taxpayers money. Some might find themselves with a conceptual objection to this. Could we do space without govt. funds?
Yes. Because space has tangible assets that overwhelm the cost of developing them. Once we learn to live off the land we can colonize. Before we learn to live off the land we can keep people alive indefinitely with supplies at a cost that is within reason.
In space they call it life support... per person per day is about 8kg (0.9 oxygen, 2.6 food, 4.5 water) to be generous let's say 1000 kg every 90 days (one cubic meter includes packaging.) Add to that power and shelter. At that rate a Dragon mars lander could provide 900 person/days of supplies to the martian surface for about $100m. So we could support a dozen researchers on the martian surface before ISRU for less than half a billion a year.
Water and air can be produced from the martian atmosphere given hydrogen, a Sabatier reactor and power, but water itself can be found subsurface so you don't need a hydrogen source beyond that. 2.6kg is hydrated food, which could be as little as 0.7kg freeze dried means support for a mission of ten people could become as little as $50m per year. That is within the means of a small business or one wealthy person. Is there enough profit potential to make that happen?
Yes again. How? (...and who could go?)
Some have said a claim the size of Alaska could finance exploration... but that's a mistake. Healthy, robust economies require distributed ownership among all members of the society. It turns out that one sq. km. claims per person is all that is needed to finance any level of space exploration.
Colonists will require life support (habitat, power, food, water, oxygen, etc.) Colonists will arrive in a temporary habitat (like a Dragon lander) but will need permanent shelter. That permanent shelter may take six month to build and should be available the moment they land. That's a market.
Given a one sq. km. claim, colonists could develop plots (80 to 200) for resale to later colonists. The later colonists are going to have to pay for their shelter one way or another. Paying a few percent over cost to have it waiting for their arrival is a no brainer. As a matter of fact, it should be ready for them before they even leave earth as part of a package deal. Make claims only available to individuals means companies will have to buy their land from them, furthering stable economic growth.
Who could go? Anybody that wants to regardless of their financial situation because it can be financed so that the bank get's all their money from a previous colonists, including the money down for the trip. It doesn't matter what the cost because that factors into the cost of the real estate. The cost of real estate being the cost to develop it plus a small percentage profit. A home on mars should cost about the same as a more expensive home on earth which means the bank gets somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars down for every package they finance. While they might get a better rate of return on other investments they would have the privilege of opening up the frontier to an economic sphere that will, over time, dwarf that of the earth alone.