As a Washington insurance man, James W. Barrett may sit at a policy-cluttered desk, but all the while he is keeping his eyes on the stars. His business, literally, is in outer space.

For 18 years, Barrett--until recently the head of the local office of the large insurance brokerage house of Corroon and Black--has been at the forefront of a very specialized segment on the worldwide insurance industry: insuring multi-million-dollar commercial space flights such as communications satellites.

Now, at age 50, he is forming a new company to capitalize on his experience in working with a developing technology. Called International Technology Underwriters, with a K Street mailing address, his company has as its goal providing expertise to other insurance companies venturing into coverage of space for the first time as well as coverage of such other futuristic enterprises as genetic engineering, data security, synthetic fuels and handling environmental wastes.

"It's the kind of stuff that really boggles the mind of the standard underwriter," says Barrett. He sees his new firm as taking these underwriters by the hand and guiding them through the intricacies of insuring new technology, where no data are available on the extent of the risk or, sometimes, on just what aspect of the project needs coverage.

With the development of space flight insurance, Barrett had to learn on his own. From literally zero in 1963, premiums for coverage of commercial satellite launches have grown into the millions. Some satellite launches now are being insured for $100 million each. He says the impact of insurance on the nation's space efforts has been tremendous:

"Banks are lending a lot of money to people for communications satellites. These capital markets want to know that the assets are insured," Barrett explains.

A worry that haunts him is that the escalating costs of satellites may strain the capacity of the insurance industry to provide sufficient coverage in the upcoming years. The space shuttle soon will be carrying as many as four commercial satellites worth between $300 million and $400 million on each trip, he says, adding, "That presents a substantial challenge to the industry to come up with that capacity" of coverage. "It's a potentially serious problem."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's general counsel, Neil Hosenball, was quoted at a recent Washington conference on business opportunities in space on this point. "Private enterprise will not be moving into space as fast as it did in the satellite field if there is no insurance," Hosenball said.

As Barrett tells the story, the idea of space-flight insurance began back in 1963. He had just started his own business--in itself "unique," he says, insuring overseas Americans in the State Department and the Peace Corps--but initially "I didn't have enough work to keep me busy. So I would drift in once or twice a week."

It was during this time that the pioneering Communications Satellite Corp., which had only just been formed, "was very much in the press. I found the idea fascinating and had been keeping up with it.

"Suddenly it dawned on me. These people are going to have to insure. I scratched my head on the subject for a time."

One day during a bridge game, when he was dummy, "I took the opportunity to call Comsat.

"Now you have to get the picture," says Barrett. Around his desk, sit or hang trophies of his aerospace ventures. Behind the desk, a blue marlin caught on a Baja California vacation arches as if to leap from the confines of the wall.

"Here I was, a 30-year-old. I screwed up my courage and picked up the phone and called," Barrett recalls. When he was put through to an aide of the Comsat chairman, he made his pitch to insure the next Comsat shot although "I didn't know if I could really do it."

Up to then, Comsat "had never even thought about insuring satellites," he says. "They were so busy trying to get themselves started up." Nevertheless, they called him back about 20 minutes later. A pause: "Thank God."

("That's the way it happened," says Lewis Meyer, vice president for planning at Comsat. "He talked to me. No one had thought about it until Barrett. We decided our shareholders shouldn't be subjected to a launch failure.")

Barrett says that a number of meetings followed those initial phone calls,"and a concept of insurance began to emerge. But, good Lord, it was really tough going." It involved a great deal of explaining the complexities of space flight.

"I was an insurance broker, and no insurance company had heard of anything like this." To line up underwriters who would share the risk of an expensive launch, "I telephoned at least 50 companies. Those I got to see were few and far between. Aetna was the first one to look at me as if I wasn't crazy."

(At Aetna Life and Casualty in Hartford, one of the company officers he dealt with was William O. Bailey, now president and a major voice in the insurance industry. "I remember those days vividly. I was intrigued by the novelty of the thing," says Bailey, who calls Barrett a "pioneer who continues to be at the leading edge" of space insurance.)

Barrett says "doing business in space was very treacherous" in those days. "It was very early in the technology." One of the two previous launches of noncommercial synchronus communications satellites designed to remain over the same spot on Earth had failed.

Eventually, at the insistence of at least one Comsat board member fearful of intrusting so much responsiblity to a newcomer, Barrett linked efforts with the national insurance brokerage firm of Marsh & McLennan, now another leader in the space insurance business.

The first Comsat launch, called Early Bird, was made in 1965 from Cape Canaveral and, to Barrett's good fortune, was successful. "We insured Early Bird for $25 million" for liability if it should plunge disastrously to earth and $5 million for prelaunch accidents.

If this was the insurance industry's first big step into space, there was a wait for the second one. "Comsat decided it didn't need insurance," so the next series of flights orbited without coverage. But at the outset of a third series, a launch failed. Comsat came knocking again, and "we've been arranging launch insurance since then."

Barrett figures he has had a hand in almost all of the more than 30 major commerical satellite launches around the world. Clients have included Western Union, International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat), Satellite Business Systems (SBS), the European Space Agency, the Indonesian government and the national space agency of Japan. NASA's launches are self-insured by the government.

An Intelsat satellite was launched successfully on Dec. 15. "I arranged $65 million of insurance for that," Barrett says.

The insurance has become more sophisticated and the coverage broader. "My first policy for Early Bird was two pages double-spaced," according to Barrett. "Now they are seven pages single-spaced." Beyond prelaunch and liability, "If a satellite should fail in orbit, we'll finance a replacement. That's really an important bit of insurance."

Barrett describes the classic launch accident as a satellite "that goes astray and they are not able to destroy it." From Canaveral, "It heads south down Collins Avenue Miami Beach and lands in the Fontainebleau pool during a trial lawyers convention, and one survives." That scenario is quite unlikely, he quickly points out. In fact, the premiums on such a liability risk "are dirt cheap."

Barrett says that behind any satellite policy is "a large syndication" that includes insurers from the United States, Britain, continental Europe and Japan. And behind them is "a vast number of reinsurers--as many as several hundred underwriters."

Along the way, there have been launch failures, including a 1979 satellite insured at $77 million. That "rattled the industry," Barrett says. The Journal of Commerce quoted insurers as reporting $85 million collected in premiums but $122 million paid out to cover the failure of three launches in the past two years. To date, "The market is in deficit or at best breaking even," agrees Barrett. Still, the risks have been less than might be thought because of the care taken in the building and launching of a satellite project, he says.

One office trophy that pleases Barrett particularly is a framed plaque carrying a shoulder insignia and signatures of astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, who flew the space shuttle Columbia last April. It is a thank-you for Barrett's help in arranging an $800,000 accident insurance policy for each of them at no cost. Up to then, "They had only their insurance as officers in the military," he says.

An old-fashioned skateboard--two halves of a rollarskate separated by an 18-inch 2 by 4--sits atop a bookcase. "I've been traveling over 100 days a year for the last 10 years. My secretary gave it to me once when I got home for Christmas."

While Barrett himself was getting launched into the space field, his Earth-based business of insuring overseas Americans was prospering. In 1969, he sold out to Kaiser Industries, becoming the president of Kaiser's insurance subsidiary in San Francisco. "My project there was to develop it into a full-blown company." After Kaiser sold the subsidiary five years later, Barrett returned east with his wife and four children to head Corroon and Black here.

"We were happy to do it. We are fourth-generation Washingtonians." An older brother, Thomas, has a life insurance agency here.

At Corroon and Black, he continued to take a big interest in space insurance, and when the firm established a subsidiary, Inspace, to concentrate on that field in 1980, he headed that up too. Several months ago, though, he began to identify some problems in insurance, and decided to form his new company.

"For years I've been coming to the market with unusual risks"--including a nuclear project in Colorado involving the extraction of natural gas from an underground cavity. He says that what he had learned, he says, "is that new risks and emerging technology are anathema to underwriters. 'Why do I want to insure this?' they ask. It's been nagging at me all through my career. The biggest sale I make is not to my clients, but to the underwriters to accept the risk."

One reason he explains may be that premiums on high-risk ventures can be "inconsequential to a company's total premium universe," he explains. "The individual underwriter could be putting his career on the dotted line should a major claim be filed. And the venture probably wouldn't warrant staffing up with the technical personnel needed to make sound risk managment decisions.

"What became apparent to me is a simple axiom: Technology advances more rapidly than institutions can be formed to serve them." And he adds: "Technology is going ahead at Mach 2, and the insurance industry is still in the 55 mile-per-hour zone." If America progresses, he says, it will be as a "trailblazer" in technology, he says. "We've lost a little of that in the last 10 or 15 years."

Over the last year, "I've been considering the prospect of trying to help bridge the gap" between the insurance industry and technology. On Nov. 11, he resigned from Carroon and Black to form his new company, called Intec, to serve as "underwriting manager for insurance companies wishing to underwrite advancing technology."

It is, he believes, "a brand new idea. We don't know of any other organization in the world dedicated to high-technology underwriting. I think we're filling a vacuum." Intec is aiming at providing for both the insurance and aerospace industries "the technological base for making accurate assessments of risk and for operating management of the underwriting facility.

"We look at ourselves as being a threshhold underwriter. We manage through the threshhold of maturing technology, and then they can go on their own."