There's a fabulously evocative article by astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman in this week's New Scientist, which describes what it actually feels like to ride on the Space Shuttle. I particularly enjoyed the following:
The most spectacular view of the re-entry light show surrounding the shuttle is towards the rear. Still moving at hypersonic speed, the shuttle is surrounded by shock waves, which form a relatively stable three-dimensional pattern behind the shuttle, much like the wake behind a motor boat. Multicoloured plasma streams flicker irregularly, and where the shock waves converge they form a tiny, brilliant point of light, a steady diamond shining back at us at the temperature of the surface of the sun.
The ceramic tiles that protect us from the heat of re-entry are doing their job, but every once in a while tiny pieces of gap filler material come loose and fly away as bright flashes moving through the wake. Every time I see one go by I think "I hope that wasn't anything important!"