|Quoting KC135TopBoom (Reply 2):|
An interesting point that very few ever mention is had Columbia not broken up, the additional drag created by the whole in her wing would have not allowed them to reach the Kennedy Space Center Runway. They would have had to ditch off the coast.
That, most likely would have been survivable.
The devil is in the details. If the vehicle couldn't make the Cape, there would be a sporting chance of making Orlando International or MacDill AFB, depending on how short on energy the vehicle was. Also, the vehicle flies itself based on how much energy it has. If it is slowing down more than it expects to be, the S-turns to dissipate speed would be made smaller in order to stretch the energy to reach the destination.
If the vehicle is still controllable but without enough energy to reach the runway, that would be a bail out situation. Columbia didn't last long enough for that to happen, but I've heard reports (i.e., rumors) that the guys in the back rooms were preparing a bail out recommendation when Mission Control lost contact with Columbia. (This was mostly because they thought the tires were blown and no longer reliable for landing.)