The shuttle was returning from a routine 16-day mission when it broke over Texas. According to the Daily Mirror, Wayne Hale, who later became space shuttle programme manager, has blogged about the day.
"After one of the MMTs (mission management teams) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (flight director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: 'You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (thermal protection system)," he wrote.
"If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?'," he added.
According to the report, it took months for an investigation to discover the cause of the accident, a briefcase-sized piece of foam, which had broken off an external fuel tank and punched a hole in the wing.