Spacecraft returning to Earth create nearly-horizontal artificial meteors, which often resemble natural meteors but have the advantage to investigators of being well documented, and sometimes predictable. They also serendipitously create ‘control experiments’ in eyewitness perception and recollection of sudden startling sky spectaculars that can be generalized into assessing other such reports from non-spacecraft stimuli.
During its lifetime, the space shuttle program created massive fireballs as the 100-ton vehicles entered the atmosphere and slowed for a runway landing. For landings in Florida, and depending on the orbital paths they descended from, these fireballs could be passing overhead as far south as the Yucatan, to due eastwards across Texas, to coming across the Great Lakes.
If the entry was in darkness, the view from inside the spacecraft was ‘like flying through a neon tube’, especially since there was an overhead window and the orbiter was pitched so far nose-high that the window saw straight back along the fiery trail.
Shuttle fireball view at 46:00 into https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAaMuTRGP6k
Overhead window view
The variations in flight path, time-of-day- and weather created several opportunities for sightings from the NASA-Houston area [where it was doing Mach 20 about 60 km up], and I saw four of them, including the first [STS-11, Feb 1984], when nobody knew what to expect – and we were all blown away by the spectacle.
One cross-country entry was described by a sequence of witness reports that I compiled here:
Paul Maley’s excellent accounts are linked here: TBS
MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE SHUTTLE ENTRY FIREBALL
Since events were well publicized in advance, they rarely led to published ‘UFO reports’. However, the Columbia catastrophe in Feb 2003 led to some significant misinterpretations of photos taken as the fireball crossed California, when an image suggested it had been struck by high-altitude lightning. Here’s what the photo actually showed.