I ask this question because of a comment made by John Connolly, NASA engineer and director of the International Space University. To quote Connolly, "..when he (Rick Husband) saw that the RCS was saturated, he knew they were dead." This suggests two things to me-
- The commander and pilot realised that the reaction control system (RCS) was firing constantly and the only thing maintaining reentry profile.
- If the RCS had enough propellants left to maintain the orbiter within its flight corridor for a while longer, there was the possibility that the crew could have bailed out. This bailout scenario would involve the orbiter descending to an altitude of 25,000 feet (from 200,000 feet), maintaining a nominal deceleration profile, the left wing, or a large part of it, (for drag not lift) remaining attached to the vehicle and the RCS having enough thrust (and fuel) to control the disintegrating orbiter. Apparently the RCS was able to maintain correct drag profile and its saturation was the immediate cause of loss of control, of course along with a lot of other things occurring at that time. That's a lot of "ifs" I know and without one of them (and probably a lot of others) breakup, ballistic reentry and loss of crew is the only other alternative.