updated 1/18/2011 1:54:29 PM ET 2011-01-18T18:54:29

The head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration credited the 30-year space shuttle program with helping break down segregation in space.

Retired Marine Gen. Charles Bolden, Jr., in remarks for a Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday breakfast Tuesday, said the shuttle made more than scientific and technological breakthroughs possible.

"It has also been instrumental in providing space flight opportunities for women and people of color, effectively breaking down that segregation without a single law being passed to force it," the Columbia, S.C., native said.

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Bolden, appointed by President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, became the first black administrator of NASA in July of 2009.

"Believe me, when I grew up, either one of those things would have been unimaginable as I sat in Columbia's Carver Theater, the only movie house in town for black people," said Bolden, 64.

In the early days of the space program, astronauts were exclusively white and male.

In 1978, NASA named 35 candidates to fly on the space shuttle, including Sally K. Ride, who became America's first woman in space, and Guion S. Bluford Jr., who became America's first black astronaut in space.

Image: Sally Ride
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
Former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

"Nearly 400 people have flown on the shuttle with distinction and honor. Crews have made the ultimate sacrifice," said Bolden, who flew on the shuttle four times himself.

The shuttle is being retired this year. Space shuttle Discovery's final flight is now set for late next month. As of now, it will be the next-to-last for NASA's 30-year shuttle program. But officials say another flight could be added this summer.

Bolden was to speak later Tuesday in his hometown.

"I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. King," Bolden said. He added that when he speaks to groups around the county "I'll strive to show by example how grateful, how proud I am to have the opportunities he helped make possible."

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