"The exploration of the solar system cannot be what we want it to be" if the cost is borne solely by American taxpayer, or even by taxpayers of nations willing to join in, Griffin told the American Astronautical Society's annual conference Tuesday.
The space station, which is about the size of a three-bedroom house and halfway complete, provides an opportunity to promote "commercial space ventures that will help us meet our exploration objectives and at the same time create new jobs and new industry," he said.
Once the nation's shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, Griffin said he would like to see commercial industry take over crew rotations and supply missions.
"We want to be able to buy these services from American industry," he said. "We believe that when we engage the engine of competition, these services will be provided in a more cost-effective fashion than when the government has to do it."
The space agency plans to begin seeking proposals this fall from industries to deliver cargo to orbit.
Griffin said the private sector could develop habitats in which astronauts would live on the moon, and develop communications and navigation systems as well as orbiting fueling depots where crews headed beyond low Earth orbit could refuel on return trips to the moon or farther.
"I think we are at the start of something big — something akin to what we saw with the personal computer 25 years ago," the NASA chief said.
By Pam Easton