Ford said private companies like SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., whose Cygnus cargo vehicle is scheduled for its first trip to the ISS in December, would ensure the sustainability of the lab over the coming decade and enable new exploration.
"These companies out there are themselves learning a lot about getting to and from low-earth orbit and picking up that task so that NASA can indeed begin to concentrate on things out of earth orbit and going out further into our solar system," Ford said.
His remarks echo a statement to Congress in September by William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.
Gerstenmaier said commercial transportation would enable the United States to fly its own astronauts to and from the International Space Station, "end our sole reliance on foreign governments" and allow for the expansion of the full-time crew to seven from six.
The incoming Dragon held 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms) of groceries, clothes, science experiments and other gear. It is to depart with almost twice that much cargo at the end of the month. Dragon is the only cargo ship capable of bringing back research and other items, filling a void left by NASA's retired shuttles.
The departure of the Dragon and a spacewalk to carry out repair operations on the station will be among the first operations to be handled by the incoming team.
"We really face a lot of tasks that we'll concentrate on right off the bat when we get aboard," Ford said. "After the spacewalk comes down, hopefully we'll have a little time to catch our breath."
U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams, Russia's Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan, who have been at the ISS since mid-July, are scheduled to return to earth next month.
Another multinational three-man crew with astronauts from the United States, Canada and Russia will set off from Baikonur in late December to take their place.
"Christmas Day ... has already been cancelled because we'll be having a Soyuz arriving aboard with our crewmates," Ford said. "Perhaps when they arrive it will be like Santa Claus arriving and bringing us gifts from earth."