This is the first paper of a two part series based on an integrated study carried out at Sandia National Laboratories and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The aim of the study is to develop a more fundamental understanding of plasma-particle interactions, droplet-substrate interactions, deposit formation dynamics and microstructural development as well as final deposit properties. The purpose is to create models that can be used to link processing to performance. Process maps have been developed for air plasma spray of molybdenum. Experimental work was done to investigate the importance of such spray parameters as gun current, auxiliary gas flow, and powder carrier gas flow. In-flight particle diameters, temperatures, and velocities were measured in various areas of the spray plume. Samples were produced for analysis of microstructures and properties. An empirical model was developed, relating the input parameters to the in-flight particle characteristics. Multi-dimensional numerical simulations of the plasma gas flow field and in-flight particles under different operating conditions were also performed. In addition to the parameters which were experimentally investigated, the effect of particle injection velocity was also considered. The simulation results were found to be in good general agreement with the experimental data.