Class of 2021: Law graduate tackles new frontier with space law

The ink may not yet be dry on Ramon Ryan’s law degree, but his legal research is already gaining national attention. 

Ramon Ryan, Class of 2021, is a recipient of the William B. Marr Scholarship at Vanderbilt Law School. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Even before the paper he wrote as editor of Vanderbilt Law School’s Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law was published, it was featured in Scientific American and became the catalyst for oversight action in the U.S. Senate. 

“I knew space law could be a good research topic,” said Ryan, who founded the student Space Law Society during his first year. “I found an article discussing how SpaceX’s Starlink satellite program was creating light pollution for astronomers and scientists,” he said. “I thought that there must be a legal recourse out there.” 

Ryan was right. He focused on NEPA—the National Environmental Policy Acta 1970 law that requires federal agencies to assess the potential environmental impact of projects. However, the Federal Communications Commission decided 34 years ago to exclude virtually all of its activities from environmental review, which now includes the commercial satellite projects that it licenses 

Ryan’s paper identifies several issues raised by the FCC’s blanket exemption and poses a straightforward solution—follow NASA’s lead. “If NASA has to use NEPA guidelines before it launches something into space, why doesn’t the FCC?” Ryan asked.  

After the Scientific American piece, Business Insider and Futurism picked up the story, and then U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office asking for review of the FCC’s policy of excluding private satellites from environmental review.  

Early in 2021, the American Bar Association announced that Ryan had won its 2020 K. William Kolbe Writing Competition for his paper.  

“It feels amazing to know my research is already making an impact,” Ryan said.  

Life before law school

Ramon Ryan during his days as a flight attendant. (Submitted photo)

Ryan’s route to law school wasn’t traditional. After high school, he worked as a flight attendant and union organizer. During one union election, a National Labor Relations Board attorney suggested he consider law school. “I told her that I didn’t even have an undergraduate degree and would be 38 before I finished law school,” he remembers. “She said, ‘You’ll be 38 anyway. Go.’” 

Ryan took the advice to heart and enrolled in night classes at Nashville State Community College while working as a paralegal. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University then headed to law school at Vanderbilt. “Law school is the first time I’ve been able to just go to school and not also hold down a job,” he said.  

Ryan says he’s felt welcome since his first day on campus. “As an older student, I was nervous about fitting in. But I’ve been embraced. The community here is just amazing,” he said. “We all come in from different walks of life, but the 1L year levels the playing field.”  

After graduation, Ryan heads to century-old law firm Bass, Berry and Sims in Nashville, where he will be a litigation associate in the government contracts and international trade law group, with a space law angle. He also will serve a one-year clerkship in 2023 for Judge Todd Hughes on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. 

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.