Trump's announcement last week underscored the meteoric rise of commercial ventures, and the commensurate decline in NASA's public profile.
It also broadly reflects a society ambivalent at best about the government's role in pioneering the next phase of space exploration. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll showed that nearly half of adults say the federal government's place in future space travel should be minimal or nonexistent.
Yet as the next global space race develops, Whitson thinks people shouldn't be so quick to discount NASA's involvement. She believes the agency is set to do much of the heavy lifting that private companies will need to flourish in outer space.
"NASA is doing what it should be doing as a government organization … the real deep space exploration that allows commercial providers to have the means for going," the Iowa native and former commander of the International Space Station told CNBC.
It means that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who boasted in March that SpaceX could be ready to send a rocket to Mars as soon as next year, will still need NASA to set the stage for the eventual exploration and colonization of other planets, Whitson said.
"Elon says he's going to get [to Mars] first, and that would be great, but there's a lot of test" beforehand, she told CNBC. "In the future there will be commercial companies in space, but until then ... NASA has to progress and build a presence."
Nor should the U.S. try and go it alone, Whitson added. She insisted that the future of international cooperation in space travel remains bright — even with geopolitical tensions flare.
"I actually think that the space station is demonstrating what we can do internationally — [with] any great endeavor it's going to be most successful and best done internationally," the astronaut told CNBC.
The legacy of the ISS will be that "we can do these complex things together internationally. I know it sounds a little like rose-colored glasses, but if we can do this maybe it will be our path forward in the future."