WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told an audience of space entrepreneurs and U.S. lawmakers he is skeptical of the private sector’s ability to take over manned operations in low Earth orbit, but is hopeful commercial space companies will succeed.

“I would be telling you a lie if I told you we’re on board, we’re really excited about this,” the former astronaut said during a commercial space seminar held Sept. 23 on Capitol Hill. Bolden was referring to a private-sector push for NASA to outsource manned missions to and from the international space station after the agency retires its aging space shuttle fleet in the next year or so.

Bolden’s remarks come as NASA and White House officials mull the findings of a blue-ribbon panel tasked in May with determining options for the future of human space exploration. The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, urged NASA to stimulate a commercial space sector capable of ferrying astronauts into low Earth orbit.

Although the panel’s full report is not expected before the end of September, Bolden said NASA is currently weighing a number of options outlined in an executive summary delivered to senior NASA and White House officials Sept. 8 and posted on the Augustine panel’s Web site.

“We’re battling, we’re struggling to advise our president on what is the proper course to take,” Bolden said of the Augustine panel’s options. “But I am confident we can come up with the right answer.”

While Bolden expressed reservations about the future of private-sector space, in the same breath he acknowledged a willingness to change the way NASA has done business in the past.

“Old habits die hard. Many of us who have grown up in the traditional space program, you know, we really believe we have all the answers. It has to be our way or no way at all,” he said. “I don’t believe that. I am becoming more and more convinced every day in this job that there are different ways that we can and must do this.”

Bolden went on to describe the merits of NASA’s commercial space initiatives, including the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Under COTS, NASA is paying Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., up to $278 million to conduct three demonstration flights of a reusable Dragon logistics capsule launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket currently slated to make its debut late this year. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is developing a competing cargo module and rocket under a separate COTS agreement valued at $170 million.

NASA awarded both companies Commercial Resupply Services contracts in December totaling $3.5 billion to haul a minimum of 40 tons of cargo to the station by the end of 2016. “NASA’s COTS is applying funds to stimulate efforts to develop the ability of private companies to fly cargo, and potentially crew, to the international space station, as well as future low-Earth-orbit destinations,” Bolden said. “It’s our hope that this initiative will grow jobs in engineering, design and research, and it will spur economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created.”

Bolden said NASA will benefit from commercial efforts like COTS, but emphasized the program is only one of the space agency’s commercial initiatives that aims to stimulate competition in the private sector.

“We think we can find the most innovative solutions to some of our most difficult and challenging problems through competition and innovation. This is pretty exciting stuff,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Let me say that again: this is exciting stuff.”

Using a fraction of the $1 billion NASA received earlier this year under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the agency has committed $50 million to a so-called Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV) program in an effort to accelerate development of commercial human space transportation systems. Industry proposals were due Sept. 22, and NASA expects to make one or more awards in November.

Although the number of proposals submitted is not publicly available, roughly two-dozen companies had expressed interest in the money by early September, including Chicago-based Boeing Co., which announced Sept. 23 it had submitted a proposal with entrepreneurial space firm Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev. Boeing said it had also joined three other teams submitting their own separate proposals.

The Boeing-Bigelow team pitched a crew capsule system that leverages Boeing’s existing designs for human crew capsules, and that is adaptable to different launch vehicles, though the focus of the commercial crew development proposal involves avionics, landing systems and life support subsystems, according to Boeing spokesman Edmund Memi.

In a second proposal, led by Orbital Sciences, Boeing would help develop a crew variant of Orbital’s Cygnus cargo module that would launch atop a human-rated variant of Orbital’s medium-class Taurus 2 rocket. In addition to Boeing, the Orbital team includes propulsion firms Alliant Techsystems of Promontory, Utah; Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet; and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., according to an industry source.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in September his company would propose development of a launch abort system for a crewed variant of Dragon. Other companies that told NASA they intended to prime a CCDEV bid include Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Alliant Techsystems Launch Systems Group, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, and Andrews Space, among several lesser-known firms.

Bolden, meanwhile, said NASA must explore new approaches to space exploration if the United States is to maintain a leading edge in human spaceflight while attracting foreign partners to programs like the international space station.

“We’ve got to get away from old ways and old habits,” he said. “We’ve got to become innovative so that people still want to come to this nation, they want to come to the technological leaders in the world to venture off into space.”

Bolden said it is his hope that NASA can take advantage of future opportunities presented by a burgeoning space tourism industry.

“It is my hope, it is my sincere hope, that a space tourism industry really takes off in the years ahead,” he said.

Bolden said the promise of space in our time is the opening of a new frontier to the next generation of space entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, academicians and service industry workers.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the space business,” he said. “Let the competition begin.”