If you lift a swing at a children's playground and release it will swing back and forth for a while, losing some altitude in each swing, mostly (?) due to drag. Eventually it has lost all energy and stops.
Couldn't that principle be used when a spacecraft is re-entering the atmosphere? That is, go downwards into the atmosphere and then steer upwards - converting kinetic energy to potential energy but also lose some energy to friction - when the speed/friction-heat is too high, and cool down a bit (when you lose speed by going upwards the friction is reduced). Rinse and repeat until you lost enough energy to avoid the heat from atmospheric friction being an issue.
This would of course require some kind of wings with control surfaces but the space shuttle had exactly that.